WASHINGTON - Democrats swept tough and sometimes nasty governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, dealing a setback to Republicans and President George W. Bush ahead of critical congressional elections next year.
In Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine handily defeated Republican Jerry Kilgore despite Bush's 11th-hour appearance on Kilgore's behalf. Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine beat Republican businessman Doug Forrester in a bitter New Jersey race featuring an attack on the divorced Corzine by his ex-wife.
California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who put his sinking political capital on the line to push four state ballot initiatives, was headed for defeat across the board.
The only big Republican win came in normally Democratic New York, where Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg sailed to re-election after spending as much as $100 million of his own fortune to defeat Democrat Fernando Ferrer.
With control of both chambers of the U.S. Congress and 36 governorships at stake in 2006, the off-year election offered grim news for Republicans seeking clues to next year's political climate and the long-term effect of Bush's plummeting approval ratings, now the lowest of his presidency.
The outcome in conservative, Republican-leaning Virginia was a particularly bad blow for Bush, who stopped there on election eve for a get-out-the-vote rally with Kilgore. Bush's mounting political problems and Kilgore's poor showing could make Republicans hesitant to call on him for help next year.
The heated Virginia race featured a series of Kilgore television ads attacking Kaine as too liberal for the Southern state on social issues such as the death penalty, abortion and immigration.
But the harsh tone of the ads seemed to sour voters on Kilgore. Kaine allied himself with popular Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, a potential 2008 presidential candidate who is barred by law from seeking a second term, and argued he was the logical choice to move Virginia ahead.
"The people of Virginia have sent a message loud and clear that they like the path we chose and they want to keep Virginia moving forward," Kaine, with Warner at his side, told cheering supporters in Richmond.
'LET NEW JERSEY DOWN'
In Democratic-leaning New Jersey, Forrester aired an ad last week featuring the published comments of Corzine's ex-wife, who told The New York Times the divorced Corzine "let his family down, and he'll probably let New Jersey down, too."
Corzine, a multimillionaire and former Wall Street executive, linked Bush and White House political adviser Karl Rove to the results of his race.
"I want to thank the people of New Jersey for rejecting the Bush-Rove tactics that are bad for democracy and that were stopped in their tracks tonight," Corzine said in his victory speech in East Brunswick, New Jersey.
Corzine will replace former Gov. James McGreevey, who resigned last year after revealing a homosexual affair with an aide. As governor, Corzine will appoint his replacement as senator.
Possibly no one had more at stake than Schwarzenegger, the once immensely popular governor of the nation's largest state whose fortunes have nose-dived ahead of his re-election campaign next year.
The former actor campaigned heavily for four state ballot initiatives. He was headed to defeat on proposals to limit state spending and a plan to require teachers to wait an additional three years before earning tenure.
A California proposal to curb the influence of public employee unions by requiring members to seek permission from members before spending their dues on political causes also trailed with many votes from liberal Los Angeles still to be counted.
Another defeated initiative would have shifted the right to draw political districts from politicians to retired judges. A similar measure in Ohio, pushed by Democrats, also was soundly defeated along with three other proposals to overhaul the way Ohio runs elections.
The California and Ohio initiatives were among 39 ballot measures facing voters in seven states. In Maine, voters endorsed a law protecting homosexuals from discrimination, while Texas approved a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
In Dover, Pennsylvania, where a court battle is raging over the teaching of an "intelligent design" alternative to evolution, voters ousted eight of the nine incumbents on the local school board.
Replacing them will be a slate of board members who call for removing intelligent design, which they say is a version of creationism and brings religion into the teaching of science, from the curriculum.
Copyright © 2005 Reuters Ltd