Author: By David Usborne in New York
For their part, leaders of the Republican Party painted their gains as a significant shift in the political landscape of the country. Their joy, however, was somewhat dampened by defeats in two special elections for seats in the US Congress, including in a district of upstate New York that had been in the party’s control since the Civil War.
But 12 months after delivering his own victory speech in Grant Park, Chicago, it is Mr Obama who finds himself abruptly on the defensive. He had campaigned in both Virginia and New Jersey in recent days and weeks. While he remains relatively popular in both states, the magic was missing to save Creigh Deeds and Jon Corzine, respectively beaten on Tuesday by Republicans Bob McDonnell and Christopher Christie.
Robert Gibbs, the President’s spokesman, insisted that in both states voters were motivated first by “very local issues that didn’t involve the president”. Saying that voters were also concerned foremost with the economy, he added: “I don’t think the president needed an election or an exit poll to come to that conclusion.”
The chairman of the Republican Party, Michael Steele, said by contrast that his “transcendent party” was on the move again. David Carney, the former political director for President George Bush, called the night “great news” for the future of the party.
The failure of Mr Obama to save Mr Corzine at least, who was an incumbent governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state with a large fortune to fund his campaign, may give pause to Democrats on Capitol Hill, most of whom face re-election in the far more important mid-term elections next November. It could make them less willing to support Mr Obama’s progressive legislative agenda, notably on health care reform and climate change.
Mr Corzine was defeated by a comfortable margin of five per cent in what had been billed as a very tight race from the start, while Mr Deeds, widely considered a weak and undisciplined candidate, lost by a margin of nearly 20 points in Virginia.
Tuesday night also saw the re-election of Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire financial news tycoon, for a third term as mayor of New York, although he won by a far slimmer margin over Democrat Bill Thompson than most polling organisations had predicted. He told New Yorkers yesterday they “ain’t seen nothing yet” and he would redouble his efforts in the next four years.
Meanwhile, there was a stinging set-back for gay and lesbian activists in the state of Maine, where voters repealed a law signed six months ago approving gay marriage. It was a big victory for conservatives and the right-wing Christian groups that led the campaign to have the law overturned. Maine had been the sixth US state to allow gays to marry.
For Democrats, meanwhile, there was the small silver lining of the two seats gained in the House of Representatives. They pointed in particular to the victory of Bill Owens in the 23rd district of New York, whose original rival, Dede Scozzafava was forced out of the race at the weekend under pressure from a more conservative Republican, Doug Hoffman, who had won support from rightwing activities nationally, including Sarah Palin.
The district has thus gone Democrat for the first time since the Civil War. However, the reverberations from Mr Hoffman’s defeat may well be felt by the Republican Party at large for months to come as it risks being pulled apart by an increasingly restive conservative faction at the grass-roots level nationally, encouraged by the likes of Ms Palin and Fox anchor Glenn Beck, and the far more moderate leadership in Washington.
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