Barack Obama faces a likely political bruising today as Virginia votes for a new governor in an election that the Republican candidate looks set to win. The contest takes place exactly one year after the state broke with decades of tradition by helping to put a Democrat in the White House.
In what is otherwise a quiet year electorally, the results from Virginia this evening will inevitably be pored over for signs that the coalition built by the Obama campaign in 2008, which included many independents and first-time voters, is eroding. All eyes will also be on another race for governor in New Jersey and an unexpectedly eventful congressional contest in northern New York that has exposed ominous fissures in the Republican ranks.
Republican leaders will nonetheless use any victory in Virginia today – eve-of-vote polls put the Democrat Creigh Deeds 14 points behind his challenger Bob McDonnell – to hail the start of a comeback for the party after its disastrous showing last year. Before Obama, the state had not supported a Democrat for President since 1964.
Several other state-wide positions in Virginia may also be snatched by Republicans. "The streak of good elections for Democrats in Virginia ends tomorrow," warned Dean Debnam of Public Policy Polling, which offered the last opinion survey in the state before polling stations open this morning. "Republicans are going to sweep the statewide races and the only real suspense is by how much."
Depicting the races in the two states as amounting to a referendum on Mr Obama's presidency so far is surely an overstatement. These are races dominated primarily by local political personalities and local political concerns, like property tax levels. Yet the Obama team knows that two losses will encourage talk that the country is souring on his leadership. "Mr Obama's "policies have had a lot of effect on people's thinking," Mississippi Governor, Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, said. "People are worried about jobs. Most Americans can't understand why the government keeps spending so much money. They don't see much effect from it."
Yet if pundits extrapolate from tonight what the country at large might expect in next November's mid-term congressional elections, they will also pause to analyse the drama that has unfolded in the 23rd congressional district of New York close to Canada, where voters will replace Republican John McHugh, poached by Mr Obama to serve as his Army Secretary.
It should have been a shoo-in for the moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava, but she unexpectedly withdrew at the weekend in the face of opposition from Republican conservatives nationally who rallied instead behind a more radically right local businessman, Doug Hoffman.
Ms Scozzafava, who in the past has supported abortion rights, went so far on the eve of polling there to urge supporters to support the Democrat candidate rather than Mr Hoffman. Her withdrawal virtually guarantees that Mr Hoffman – who won early backing from Sarah Palin – will win. If so, his fellow conservatives will be further emboldened in their struggle with the national leadership of the Republican Party in Washington.