Change not a big factor in state and local races

WASHINGTON -- Voters kept their anger and disillusionment in check in state and local elections this week, generally preferring to keep things the way they are rather than join ideological battles at a time of stubborn joblessness. But the closeness of some contests suggested highly competitive races are in store for 2012, particularly in presidential battleground states.

If anything, the outcomes across a range of races and ballot initiatives suggested that some of the tea-party-inspired fervor that swept the 2010 midterm races may have cooled and that voters were focusing more on bread and butter issues, with some 25 million Americans still out of work or underemployed after the deepest recession since the 1930s.

Aggressive initiatives in Mississippi to define life as beginning at conception and in Ohio to restrict collective-bargaining rights for public workers were defeated while incumbents in both parties generally prevailed.

Democrats retained their firm control of the New Jersey Legislature, despite the popularity of Republican Gov. Chris Christie. And they clung to a narrow majority in the Iowa Senate.

In Arizona, state Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of one of the toughest immigration laws in the country, was ousted after a recall attempt led by a fellow Republican.

Democrats were quick to celebrate their victories, especially in Ohio. But Republicans cheered Ohio's offsetting rebuke to President Barack Obama's health care law and a key victory in Virginia that appeared likely to hand Republicans effective control of the state Senate.

By a wide margin, Ohio voters defeated a collective-bargaining measure backed by Republican Gov. John Kasich that would have restricted the powers of labor unions representing 350,000 teachers, police officers and other public-sector workers.

"It's clear there has been class warfare from the top in this country. The middle class pushed back last night," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a conference call with reporters.

"I am hopeful that this vote sends a message to Republicans that they went too far," said Peter Haberkorn, 53, a Cincinnati artist.

Yet, cutting the other way, Ohio voters approved a largely symbolic measure to exempt state residents from the individual-mandate provision of Obama's health care law requiring everyone to carry health insurance.

Republicans said they were heavily outspent by Democrats on the collective bargaining issue in Ohio, while the anti-health care initiative got 80,000 more votes than the anti-union one.

In Virginia, Republicans failed to wrest from Democrats outright control of the Senate, but were poised to gain a 20th seat and pull even with Democrats in the 40-member chamber. The GOP candidate was ahead in the final race to be decided, but by a margin so close it was subject to a recount. An even split would give the GOP effective control, since the Republican lieutenant governor holds tie-breaking powers.

"It is what it is," said state Sen. Dick Saslaw, leader of the Virginia Senate's Democrats. He said a 20-20 tie in the Senate was "considerably better than what everybody was expecting." Meanwhile, Republicans picked up at least six seats in the GOP-led House of Delegates, to wind up with 66 of the 100 seats.

Virginia went for Obama in 2008 but elected Republican Bob McDonnell as governor in 2009. The state clearly will be tougher turf for Obama next year than the first time around.

Looking at the picture both in Virginia and nationally, "Democrats can be more encouraged than Republicans," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. But, he added, "it's a patchwork of local elections and issues, so you don't want to go too far in interpreting them."

"It was more status quo than one would have expected for a time of great economic distress," Sabato said.

Some of the outcomes might be chalked up to voter backlash against ideas they thought went too far. More extreme views -- from either end of the political spectrum -- are often rejected by a majority of voters, including by independents crucial to next year's presidential contest.

All but five of Ohio's 88 counties opposed the law restricting collective bargaining rights, and turnout was heavy in labor-friendly areas.

Mike Thanasiu, 44, of Toledo, said it was unfair to force changes to existing union contracts, especially for firefighters and police. "What they already have shouldn't be taken away. They do an invaluable service for us."

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the outcome, one of the biggest victories for organized labor in decades, should make Democratic candidates more aggressive about standing up for workers' rights.

Just as the Ohio proposed labor restrictions may seem to have gone too far to many Ohio voters, the rejected Mississippi initiative that would have defined a fertilized egg as a person also may have seemed to be a bit of a reach to many voters.

The measure divided the medical and religious communities, leading some abortion foes to waver in their support. Opponents said it would have made it a crime to use some common forms of birth control, including the morning-after pill or an intrauterine device.

"I don't think the government should have the right to tell people what to do," said Melissa Kaminski, 42, who lives in a suburb of Jackson, Miss. She said she voted against the "personhood" amendment because she thought it might have overly broad implications for health care.

For all the frustration surrounding the economy, voters refused to throw incumbent parties out of governors' and most big-city mayors' offices.

While rejecting the personhood amendment, Mississippi voters picked Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant to succeed Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, who could not run again because of term limits.

In the only other gubernatorial races, Kentucky's Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray won new terms despite high unemployment in both states. Neither state went for Obama in 2008.

In Maine, voters also kept things as they were, repealing a new state law that required voters to register at least two days before an election. The decision restored Election Day voter registration, which had been available for nearly four decades.

Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio; Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati, and John Sewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report, along with Emily Wagster in Jackson, Miss.; Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa; Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va.; Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix; and Sam Hananel in Washington.