ASBURY PARK, N.J. (AP) — The 2016 overtones were clear in this year's two most high-profile elections.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie's resounding re-election victory in Democratic-leaning New Jersey sets the opening argument for a possible White House run while Terry McAuliffe's gubernatorial victory gives fellow Democrats — if not his confidante Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself — a road map for success in the pivotal presidential swing-voting state.
Christie became the first Republican to earn more than 50 percent of the New Jersey vote in a quarter-century. McAuliffe is the first member of the party occupying the White House to become Virginia governor since 1977.
Among a slate of off-year balloting from coast to coast, New York City voters also elected Bill De Blasio, making him the first Democrat to lead the nation's largest city since 1989. Colorado agreed to tax marijuana at 25 percent, and Houston rejected turning the Astrodome into a convention hall, likely dooming it to demolition. Alabama Republicans chose the establishment-backed Bradley Byrne over a tea party-supported rival in a special congressional runoff election in the conservative state.
Turnout was relatively light — even in the most hard-fought races. Without presidential or congressional elections on the books, voters were primarily hard-core partisans. But to win, both gubernatorial victors sounded a tone of pragmatic bipartisanship — at a time of dysfunctional divided government in Washington — and, because of that pitch, they managed to cobble together a diverse cross-section of voters from across the political spectrum.
In Virginia, McAuliffe eked out a smaller-than-expected victory over conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Exit polls found Cuccinelli fared well among core right-flank constituents — tea partyers, gun owners and rural voters. But the victor, McAuliffe, held advantages among unmarried women, voters who called abortion a top issue and the vote-rich Washington suburbs.
"Over the next four years most Democrats and Republicans want to make Virginia a model of pragmatic leadership," said McAuliffe, a Democrat taking the helm in a state where Republicans control the Legislature. "This is only possible if Virginia is the model for bipartisan cooperation."
Democrats won the top two offices in Virginia, while the attorney general's race was too close to call. Democrats, who already control both Senate seats, hoped this election would give them control of all major statewide offices for the first time since 1970, a rejection of the conservatism that has dominated for the past four years.
"Virginia's on its way becoming reliably blue," Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said.
In New Jersey, Christie coasted to a second term, defeating little-known Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.
He assembled a winning coalition with broad support among constituencies that don't reliably vote Republican. Exit polls show that Christie carried a majority of women and split Hispanics with Buono. He improved on his share of the vote among blacks in 2009 by more than 10 percentage points.
Christie's advisers saw his ability to draw support from Democrats, independents and minorities as a winning argument ahead of 2016, pitching him as the most electable candidate in what could be a crowded presidential primary field.
"As your governor, it has never mattered where someone is from, whether they voted for me or not, what the color of their skin was, or their political party. For me, being governor has always about getting the job done, first," Christie told supporters inside a rowdy convention hall in Asbury Park, N.J., just steps away from the same Jersey Shore that was devastated by Superstorm Sandy a year ago.
Taken together, the results in individual states and cities yielded no broad judgments on how the American public feels about today's two biggest national political debates — government spending and health care — which are more likely to shape next fall's midterm elections.
Even so, Tuesday's voting had local impact.
Other races of note:
—In Alabama, the GOP's internal squabbles played out in the special congressional runoff primary election. Bradley Byrne, a veteran politician and the choice of the GOP establishment, won against tea party favorite Dean Young. The race was the first test of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's promise to try to influence primaries. The group had pumped at least $200,000 into supporting Byrne.
—Big city mayors: In New York, de Blasio cruised to victory over Republican Joe Lhota after Michael Bloomberg's 12-year tenure. Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle and other cities also chose mayors.
—Colorado: Voters agreed to tax marijuana at 25 percent and apply the proceeds to regulating the newly legalized drug and building schools. And 10 rural counties refused to approve secession from the state. One county narrowly voted to secede, but it was a symbolic gesture.
Elliott reported from Virginia. Associated Press Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta, and writers Bill Barrow and Christina Almeida Cassidy in Georgia, Kristen Wyatt in Colorado, Chris Grygiel in Washington state, Corey Williams in Michigan, Thomas Beaumont in Iowa and Nedra Pickler in Washington contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is returning to Capitol Hill for fresh questioning about the health care law.
She'll be hearing Wednesday from senators with growing lists of concerns about President Barack Obama's crowning legislative achievement.
Sebelius was due to appear before the Senate Finance Committee. Its chairman, Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, was a chief author of the 2010 law. But even he has concerns about the balky Healthcare.gov website and the potential security risks it poses for consumers' private information.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the panel's top Republican, is also worried about people whose insurers are dropping them because their current policies don't meet the law's higher requirements.
Sebelius testified to a House committee last week and apologized for the problem-plagued startup of the program.
JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court on Wednesday found former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman innocent of all charges in a graft trial, clearing the way for the powerful hard-line politician to return to his post as the nation's top diplomat.
The trial had threatened to reshape the makeup of the government. But in the end, Lieberman was handed a resounding victory that instantly raises his clout in a bitterly divided coalition.
The verdict was delivered inside a closed courtroom, and minutes later, a jubilant Lieberman appeared outside.
"This chapter is behind me. And I am focusing on the challenges ahead, and there are plenty of challenges," he said, claiming he had been persecuted by overzealous prosecutors for 17 years.
Lieberman, an ally and sometime rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has long been dogged by allegations of corruption. This case was the first time he had been accused of criminal behavior.
Lieberman was charged with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly trying to advance the career of a former diplomat who relayed information to him about a separate criminal investigation into Lieberman's business dealings.
Prosecutors said they respected the court's decision and would study it before deciding whether to appeal.
Lieberman was forced to step down as foreign minister before parliamentary elections early this year to face the charges.
Speaking to reporters after Wednesday's verdict, Lieberman refused to say whether he would return to the post.
But he is widely expected to do so. Since the January election, Netanyahu has left the job open, saying he would only fill it after the verdict in Lieberman's case.
Lieberman, who was born in the former Soviet republic of Moldova, is one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli politics. With a tough-talking message that has questioned the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority, criticized the Palestinians and confronted Israel's foreign critics, he has at times alienated Israel's allies while becoming an influential voice at home.
During his stint as foreign minister, he pushed a series of legislative proposals that critics said were discriminatory against Israel's Arab minority, including a failed attempt to require Israelis to sign a loyalty oath or have their citizenship revoked. He also embarrassed Netanyahu by expressing contrary views to the government, including skepticism over the odds of reaching peace with the Palestinians.
Before the January election, Lieberman led his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu into a merger with Netanyahu's Likud Party. But the alliance, meant to solidify a victory by Israel's hardline bloc, backfired and the combined list fared poorly.
Lieberman is considering whether to break up the alliance. Such a move could increase his influence since he could potentially rob Netanyahu of his parliamentary majority.