WASHINGTON — US voters have dealt President Barack Obama's Republican foes setbacks on labor and abortion rights in a series of bitterly fought off-year elections that could shape his November 2012 bid for a new term.
In Ohio, historically a decisive state in US presidential elections, voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly overturned a Tea Party-driven law restricting the collective bargaining power of public-sector unions, key Democratic allies.
"It's clear that the people have spoken," the state's unpopular governor, John Kasich, told reporters of the chastening result. "It requires me to take a deep breath and to spend some time reflecting on what happened here."
Obama's allies also scored a win in the Republican-leaning Bible Belt state of Kentucky, where centrist Democratic Governor Steve Beshear romped to reelection by a 20-point margin over his Republican challenger.
Beshear's triumph, as well as incumbent victories in mayoral contests across the country, cast doubt on the power of what polls have shown to be deep nationwide anger against officeholders -- including Obama.
Republicans also suffered a stinging defeat in conservative Mississippi, where voters easily rejected a draconian anti-abortion measure that would have given full legal rights to embryos at the moment of conception.
Democrats and abortion rights activists had noted that the so-called "personhood" measure would criminalize abortion even in cases of rape an incest and ban some birth-control measures.
At the same time, Mississippi voters elected Republican Phil Bryant to succeed outgoing Governor Haley Barbour -- and Bryant had been quoted as telling supporters that "Satan wins" if the measure failed.
In Arizona's first-ever "recall" of a sitting lawmaker, voters ousted senate president Russell Pearce, chief author of the state's controversial law to crack down on undocumented immigration, replacing him with a fellow Republican.
It was unclear how much of a role the law, which made international headlines when it was adopted and again when a federal judge blocked parts of it, played in Pearce's removal.
In Maine, voters reinstated same-day voter registration, which the state's Republican governor and legislature had repealed in a move they said would fight voter fraud and Democrats charged aimed to suppress voter turnout.
Republican hopes to lock up control of Virginia's government by capturing the state's senate hung by a thread, with returns suggesting it could end in a 20-20 seat tie to be broken by the state's Republican lieutenant governor.
And in New Jersey's state legislature battle, Democrats held off Republicans who had hoped to capitalize on the clout of popular Governor Chris Christie, the target of a conservative effort to draft him for a presidential run.
The results could help reverse the momentum of Republicans who used last year's huge electoral gains to pass extreme measures favored by the party's right wing, said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio University.
"Republicans are going to be attacked all over the country in state races as well as the presidential race as having been taken over by these extreme elements," Beck told AFP.
"Whether it will help an unpopular president saddled with a poor economy, we'll see, but it may be the main theme."
The Republican National Committee, looking for a silver lining, emphasized the results in Virginia and Mississippi and noted that Ohioans approved a symbolic measure rejecting Obama's landmark health care law.
"Despite a nearly $30 million effort by Democrats and labor to win a collective bargaining initiative, 180,000 more Ohioans voted 'yes' to repudiate Obamacare than 'no' collective bargaining," said spokesman Sean Spicer.
Unions and their supporters took to the streets in mass protests earlier this year when Republican-dominated legislatures in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states pushed through bills aimed at busting public sector unions.
Republicans insisted the restrictions were the only way to close gaping budget deficits and tried to paint public workers such as firefighters and nurses as greedy, lazy and living large off gold-plated pension and health care benefits. But the attacks backfired.
Vice President Joe Biden hailed early results showing the Ohio measure overturned by a 62-38 margin, saying Ohio voters had "delivered a gigantic victory for the middle class."
"By standing with teachers and firefighters and cops, Ohio has sent a loud and clear message that will be heard all across the country: The middle class will no longer be trampled on," he said in a statement.
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