Voters chose governors in Mississippi and Kentucky on Tuesday, casting ballots that could foreshadow 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.
A wide range of ballot measures was also being decided, including a hotly debated proposal to restore the bargaining rights of Ohio public employees and a Mississippi referendum on whether to define life 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.
In both governors' races, the offices were expected to stay in the hands of incumbent parties, suggesting voters are not ready to abandon their loyalties, despite the nation's economic woes. Still, the contests were being closely watched for any hints going into 2012, when 10 states will elect governors.
Faced with deep budget gaps and tea-party pressure to curb spending, Republican governors around the country have sought union-limiting measures throughout the year. In Ohio, voters will decide whether to repeal a new law severely limiting the bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees.
Recent polls suggested the repeal movement would succeed. The disputed law permits workers to negotiate wages but not pensions or health care benefits, and it bans public-worker strikes, scraps binding arbitration and eliminates 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.
Also on the Ohio ballot was a proposal to prohibit people from being required to buy health insurance as part of the national health care overhaul. A vote against the health care law would be mostly symbolic, but Republicans hope to use the outcome as part of a legal challenge.
The governors' races will be of keen interest to both parties, since 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 Mississippi, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant appeared poised to keep the governor's mansion in GOP hands, succeeding Haley Barbour, who toyed with a run for president. Bryant faced Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, the first black major-party nominee for governor in Mississippi.
In Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear cruised toward re-election despite high unemployment, budget shortfalls and an onslaught of third-party attack ads.
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:
-- In Kentucky, comic-turned-politician Robert Farmer upset some with his hillbilly jokes but hoped to ride name recognition to a new job as agriculture commissioner. In Ohio, politically incorrect comedian Drew Hastings, a "Comedy Central" fixture, ran for 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.
-- In Philadelphia, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter was expected to win re-election easily.
-- 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.
Associated Press Writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.