In an election that may offer an early glimpse of the political climate for next year's presidential contest, American voters showed they are frustrated but cautious – not moving sharply left or right.
Voters who cast their ballots Tuesday dished up big servings of humble pie to both major political parties.
Mississippi voters, in a surprise reversal of expectations, defeated conservatives' efforts to win America's first "personhood" law relating to human embryos. The ballot initiative would have declared that life begins at the moment of fertilization – a challenge to abortion rights that for a time looked set to pass in the Bible Belt state.
And in Ohio, a key swing state for the coming presidential race, voters overturned a Republican-backed law curbing the bargaining power of public-sector labor unions.
It was a major win for liberals, indicating that voters have limits when it comes to embracing Republican prescriptions for curbs on union power and related cuts in government spending as a solution for budget deficits. The outcome ripples beyond Ohio, energizing the spirits of labor unions and their supporters nationwide.
If those outcomes signal that many voters believe Republicans overreached coming out of their victorious 2010 midterm elections, it's hard to read Tuesday's overall results as giving any major boost to President Obama's bid for reelection. He will be battling high disapproval ratings over his own performance and public frustration over the weak economy. Traditionally, high unemployment rates pose a big obstacle to retaining the White House.
"Based on the likely state of the economy in 2012, President Obama faces a steep uphill task to secure reelection," said a recent analysis by economists at the forecasting firm IHS Global Insight, based in Lexington, Mass. "A Republican opponent lacking broad appeal could tilt the balance back in favor of the president. But it does appear that this is an election that is the Republicans' to lose."
In fact, even as Ohio voters handed Democrats a win on union bargaining power, those same voters passed a ballot initiative 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 hope to use it in a legal challenge to Obama's health-care reform law.
The Republican Party also picked up at least one seat in the Virginia state Senate, a litmus test of voters' mood in another vital swing state that Mr. Obama won in 2008. A second Virginia Senate seat hung in the vote-counting balance early Wednesday, which could potentially give Republicans effective control of the legislature, as well as the governorship.
Recent nationwide opinion polls reveal a frustrated electorate, with a large majority seeing the nation going down the "wrong track." Yet that frustration is fueled partly by a desire among independent voters for more moderation in policies – such as compromises by both parties on core issues such as taxes and spending.
The votes on Tuesday reflected a certain caution about radical change. Many Ohioans sympathized with core elements of the Republican law restricting public employee unions, yet overturned it because of concerns that it went too far.
The Ohio law called on public employees to pay more for their health care, and to have their pay and job security tied more to performance rather than seniority. But it also would have stripped unions' rights to strike and the ability of unions to collect dues from public employees who benefit financially from collective bargaining but do not join the union.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) said the vote would require him "to take a deep breath" and "spend some time reflecting on what happened here."
In Arizona, state Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the tough immigration law that put the state at the forefront of national debate on the issue, was ousted after a recall attempt led by a fellow Republican.
In the two states where a governorship was up for grabs, Kentucky and Mississippi, voters stuck with the incumbent party, and a similar pattern held in mayoral races from Phoenix to Indianapolis.
In Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear (D) was easily reelected, while Mississippi voters picked Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant to succeed Haley Barbour (R), who could not run again because of term limits. Gov.-elect Bryant beat Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, the first black major-party nominee for governor in Mississippi.
Voters' rejection of the Mississippi "personhood" initiative was a setback to abortion foes nationwide, who hope to see such measures passed in other states.
Concerns on the left – that the measure would criminalize abortion and so-called "morning after" contraception pills – were joined by doubts that arose among social conservatives. Governor Barbour voiced some of those worries as Election Day neared, saying the measure could be ambiguous or have unintended consequences.
American voters made choices on a number of other matters Tuesday:
•In Maine, voters repealed a new state law that required voters to register at least two days before an election. The decision will restore Election Day voter registration, a tradition of nearly four decades' standing in Maine. Voters in the state also rejected a proposal to allow casinos in certain communities.
•Mississippi voters approved a proposed constitutional amendment to require that voters present government-issued identification at the polls – a move that critics see as a effort to diminish minority voting. Thirty states require all voters to show ID at the polls – many of them in the Deep South, says the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fourteen of the 30 require photo ID.
•Atlanta approved Sunday alcohol sales, while Washington State adopted a plan to close state-run liquor stores and allow large stores like Costco to sell alcohol.
•In Minnesota, voters approved many measures to renew funding of individual school districts, but often balked at providing new resources for public education.
Some electoral decisions were still wending their way through the tallying process as of Wednesday morning.
In San Francisco, interim Mayor Ed Lee held a lead among 15 candidates, but because he didn't garner a majority, the city's "instant runoff" system has kicked in. The outcome depends on how many people who voted for a different candidate as their first choice tapped Mr. Lee as their second or third choices.
He would become the city's first elected Asian-American mayor. Lee, who has led the city since Gavin Newsom became California's lieutenant governor in January, was ahead with nearly 31 percent of the vote, while the closest rival had about 18 percent.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.