Incumbent parties prevail in governors races

Kentucky’s Democratic governor won another term Tuesday, and Mississippi voters kept their governor’s office in GOP hands — decisions that suggested many Americans were not ready to abandon incumbent parties, despite the nation’s economic woes.

In Ohio, voters restored the bargaining rights of public employees, and in Mississippi they considered whether life should be defined as beginning at conception. Supporters of the Mississippi measure hope to use it to mount a legal attack on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the right to abortion.

Voters’ last major judgments of 2011 were closely watched for any hints about the public’s political mood just two months ahead of the first presidential primary and nearly four years into the worst economic slowdown since the Depression.

In Ohio, a new law that severely limited the bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees was repealed. With 35 percent of precincts reporting, the repeal effort had 62 percent of the vote, compared with 38 percent who voted to keep the law.

The decision was a stiff blow to Gov. John Kasich and cast doubt on other Republican governors who have sought union-limiting measures as a way to curb spending.

The disputed law permitted workers to negotiate wages but not pensions or health care benefits, and it banned public-worker strikes, scrapped binding arbitration and eliminated annual raises for teachers.

The outcome will no doubt be watched by presidential candidates as a gauge of the Ohio electorate, which is seen as a bellwether. No Republican has won the White House without Ohio, and only two Democrats have done so in more than a century.

Elsewhere on the ballot, Ohio voters approved a proposal to prohibit people from being required to buy health insurance as part of the national health care overhaul. The vote was mostly symbolic, but Republicans planned to use it in a legal challenge.

The governors’ races were of keen interest to both parties. Ten states will elect governors next year, and governors can marshal get-out-the-vote efforts crucial to any White House candidate. The first presidential primary is Jan. 10 in New Hampshire.

In Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear was easily re-elected despite high unemployment, budget shortfalls and an onslaught of third-party attack ads. He became the second Democrat to win a governor’s race this year, after West Virginia’s Earl Ray Tomblin.

In Mississippi, voters were picking a new governor to succeed Haley Barbour, who could not run again because of term limits. Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant appeared poised to keep the governor’s mansion in GOP hands. He faced Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, the first black major-party nominee for governor in Mississippi.

The Mississippi measure that would define life as beginning at conception was given a decent chance of approval. Passage would be the first victory in the country for the so-called personhood movement, which aims to make abortion all but illegal. Similar attempts have failed in Colorado and are under way elsewhere.

In Arizona, state Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the tough immigration law that put the state at the forefront of the national debate, faced a recall attempt led by a fellow Republican. But Pearce held a 3-to-1 fundraising advantage.

Other votes of note:

• Hundreds of cities held mayoral races, including some of the nation’s largest. In San Francisco, interim Mayor Ed Lee could become the city’s first elected Asian-American leader. A former city administrator, he was named to the interim job in January, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom became lieutenant governor.

In Philadelphia, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter trounced a little-known Republican challenger named Karen Brown, a former math teacher and Democrat who switched parties to challenge the incumbent.

• Comic-turned-politician Robert Farmer lost his bid to become Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner. Farmer told hillbilly jokes that upset some people, and he had no farming experience. In Ohio, another comedian, Drew Hastings, a fixture on “Comedy Central,” became mayor of tiny Hillsboro.

• In Maine, voters decided whether to repeal a new state law that requires voters to register at least two days before an election. Repeal would effectively restore Election Day voter registration, which had been available for nearly four decades. Maine voters also decided whether to allow casinos in certain communities.

• Washington state voters decided whether to end the state-run liquor system and allow large stores to sell alcohol. The effort has been bankrolled by giant retailer Costco, which spent more than $22 million, making it the costliest initiative in Washington history.

• Oregon held a special primary to replace Democratic Rep. David Wu, who resigned in August after being accused of an unwanted sexual encounter with an 18-year-old woman. Wu was the fourth member of Congress to quit this year in a sex scandal.

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