By Reid Wilson and Aaron Blake - 11/04/09 05:41 AM EST
Republicans received a shot in the arm Tuesday night with wins in two governorships previously held by Democrats, even while Democrats padded their majority in Congress.
The wins, in Virginia and New Jersey, will give the GOP hope that independent voters may be giving the party a second look after a year of total Democratic control.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Republicans ended a long dry spell, electing their first statewide candidate since 1997. Former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie (R) defeated Gov. Jon Corzine (D), leading by 49 percent to 45 percent with 79 percent of precincts reporting.
Both seats were previously held by Democrats, with Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tim Kaine term-limited as the top executive in Virginia.
But all was not necessarily well for the GOP, which continued its losing ways on the federal level. Even as Republicans claim independent voters are swinging back their way and expressing frustration with Democratic majorities in Congress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) added to her burgeoning majority.
In a special election to fill Army Secretary John McHugh's vacant House seat, attorney Bill Owens (D) led Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman 49-45 with 85 percent of precincts reporting. The race was called for Owens just after midnight.
Republicans face losing their fifth straight special election in Congress, in a district that has been Republican-held for more than a century.
Hoffman took up the GOP banner over the weekend, after liberal Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava was effectively pushed from the race by Hoffman’s momentum.
Republicans rallied to Hoffman’s side as much as they could with just three days left in the race, but a late visit from Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic turnout operation boosted Owens at the end.
"The Republican Party’s overwhelming victory in Virginia is a blow to President Obama and the Democrat Party. It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president’s liberal agenda. The Republican Party and our grassroots supporters have renewed strength in Virginia," Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said in a statement.
"Chris Christie’s victory is a clear sign that Republicans can win in any state next year and the RGA is poised to help candidates across the country win in 2010," said Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.
Steele, who has sent out two memos in recent days touting RNC efforts in Virginia and New Jersey, appeared to position himself in such a way as to take credit on Tuesday night. After appearing at McDonnell's victory rally in Richmond, Steele boarded a private jet, sources told The Hill, in order to head to New Jersey to appear at Christie's victory rally.
Democrats will point to Owens's win as evidence that the party’s message still resonates with voters -- and, more so, that the internal struggles within the Republican Party have cost the GOP a another congressional seat.
The seat was previously held by Army Secretary John McHugh, a Republican.
Democrats point to Hoffman’s coup of the Republican mantle as part of a troubling trend for a GOP in search of an identity. Establishment Republicans around the country will have to watch their right flanks as they prepare their 2010 campaigns.
-- This article was updated at 12:41 a.m.