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U.S. Republicans appear re-energized after winning governor's races Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey, setting the stage for a major battle for control of Congress in next year's midterm elections. Tuesday's results could also have some short term political fallout for President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress.
Republicans swept the two biggest prizes in Tuesday's voting, the governor's races in Virginia and New Jersey.
President Obama won both states in last year's presidential election, and the president spent time campaigning in both states for the Democratic candidates.
Republicans are already describing Tuesday's victories as something of a national referendum on the president's policies.
Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele spoke to reporters in Washington.
"The real heroes who brought home the victory are the Republicans and independents and, yes, even the Democrats who spoke up against an incredibly arrogant government in Washington that has put our country, our freedoms and our economy at risk with unprecedented spending," said Michael Steele. "The Republican Renaissance has begun, and it has begun in earnest."
White House officials and Democrats were quick to take issue with Steele's reading of the election results.
Presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs said the races revolved around local issues.
Outgoing Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, who is also the National Democratic Party chairman, said the president was not a major factor in the elections, which were decided on the basis of local issues.
Kaine spoke on NBC's Today program:
"The president is very popular in Virginia," said Tim Kaine. "The exit polls showed both in Virginia and New Jersey that the president really retains a strong popularity among the voters in both states."
In fact, exit polls showed that a majority of voters did not consider President Obama a major factor in their decision.
Sarah Dutton directs surveys for CBS News:
"Both in New Jersey and in Virginia, voters really say that President Obama was simply not a factor in deciding who to vote for for governor," said Sarah Dutton. "In Virginia, 56 percent said that."
Nonetheless, many political experts say the election results contain warning signs for the president and his Democratic allies in Congress, especially as they push ahead on difficult issues like health care reform.
Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia:
"It is a typical off-year election," said Larry Sabato. "The out of power party did well. They won the two big jewels of the night, the Virginia governorship and the New Jersey governorship. The combination sent a real message to President Obama."
In both states, independent voters preferred the Republican candidates by wide margins. Some of those very same centrist voters supported Barack Obama in last year's presidential election.
In addition, Democrats had trouble motivating their core supporters to get out and vote in both states.
Last November, Mr. Obama benefited from a coalition of young, minority and suburban voters to help carry him to victory over Republican John McCain.
Polling analyst Sarah Dutton says the same Obama coalition of voters that helped him win Virginia a year ago did not turn out in force this year.
"This was an older electorate, an electorate that was whiter, that was more conservative overall," she said. "You know, last year, 21 percent of voters were under the age of 30. That was only 10 percent in this election, a real change."
Democrats did get some good news when they prevailed in a special congressional election in upstate New York. That race featured a split between conservative and moderate Republicans that could play out on the national stage in next year's congressional midterm elections.
Historically, the party that controls the White House suffers losses in the first midterm election of a new president's first term.
Analyst Larry Sabato says the Democrats in particular have some work to do.
"For Republicans, the real plus is that they know they can win again," he said. "They had a lot of doubts over the last year after November, 2008's disaster. For the Democrats, they have got a year to figure out a real dilemma, how do they get out the hundreds of thousands of new voters they registered in 2008 when Barack Obama is not on the ballot."
Sabato also said the results reinforce the view that the economy remains the number one issue on the minds of U.S. voters.
The election results could also have an impact on President Obama's push for health care reform. Some moderate and conservative Democrats in Congress may push for a scaled back health care bill, and that could frustrate liberal Democrats pushing for sweeping change.