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 wide 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 under-employed 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, asserted 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.
The vote could embolden other challenges of the law and temper Democratic enthusiasm, suggesting a tough slog still ahead.
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.