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Elections this week left Democrats scrambling to renew the coalition that elected President Barack Obama after independent voters, whose power to determine U.S. elections is rising with their numbers, broke heavily toward Republicans.
But even as Republicans celebrated their victories, they faced a struggle to build unity between the party establishment and the conservative activists who have helped lift the GOP out of the doldrums after two successive election cycle defeats.
For Democrats, officials in the White House and the Democratic National Committee said a precipitous falloff in minority and youth voters in Virginia and New Jersey served as a warning for 2010.
Voters ages 18 to 29, who made up more than one in five of the 2008 electorate in Virginia and voted overwhelmingly for the president, were just 10% of voters there Tuesday; those who went to the polls backed the Republican, Bob McDonnell, by a wide margin.
White House senior adviser David Axelrod said the 2010 elections would almost certainly revolve around Mr. Obama's agenda. He added the president will have an easier time using his popularity to win votes for Democrats if the candidates help the president with his legislative agenda. "You're not going to excite those voters by running away," he said. "You're going to excite them by helping create success."
Those advocating caution pointed to Virginia, where Mr. McDonnell defeated Democrat R. Creigh Deeds for the governorship in a state Mr. Obama carried a year earlier.
"I do consider Virginia a bellwether state," said Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a conservative Democrat. "I would encourage the leadership to get back to the center."
The debate among Democrats underscores the dilemma facing both parties as they look for lessons in Tuesday's vote.
Both parties are seeking the formula to fire up their respective voter base without turning off independents critical to winning in competitive 2010 congressional and state elections.
While the party in power almost always loses seats in midterm election, Democrats, with a 40-seat majority in the House, must keep losses to a minimum if they are to carry out Mr. Obama's legislative agenda.
In the Senate, Republican retirements give Democrats the opportunity to gain seats if they can strike the right balance in such states as Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire and Kentucky. To win, candidates in both parties will need to show they have plans to spur economic growth and jobs that voters worried about record budget deficits will believe.
Exit polls from Virginia and New Jersey indicated that Republicans won over voters concerned about pocketbook issues: jobs, the economy and taxes. Voters who identified themselves as independents were critical in both states.
Independents made up 30% of those who voted in the Virginia governor's race -- and they voted by a 2-to-1 margin for Mr. McDonnell, according to exit polls. In the New Jersey governor's race, Republican Chris Christie also benefited from strong independent support.
Republicans took advantage of energized conservative activists -- including some organized under the "tea party" antitax banner that makes some GOP leaders uncomfortable.
"I had a congressman call me yesterday who said, 'I have some of these tea-party activists coming after me. You have to call off the dogs,'" said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now a leader of FreedomWorks, which has worked for conservative candidates challenging fellow Republicans. "I said, 'First thing you have to realize is, I don't own the dogs.'"
In a special election in northern New York's 23rd Congressional District, Doug Hoffman, a conservative third-party candidate, ran on a platform of shrinking government and opposing Mr. Obama's economic policies. Mr. Hoffman's surging popularity among conservative voters drove the Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, to drop out of the race.
Mr. Hoffman's campaign got a boost from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, a political action committee that declared Ms. Scozzafava was too liberal. But Mr. Hoffman lost Tuesday's special election to a Democrat, Bill Owens, handing the Democrats a seat that had been in Republican hands for more than a century.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said he was disappointed by the results but not deterred. The group is deciding whether to jump into Republican primary fights in Florida, Illinois and Connecticut.
A new front opened this week when conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.) endorsed California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore for the 2010 Senate campaign against Sen. Barbara Boxer on Tuesday. Former Hewlett-Packard Co. Chief Executive Carly Fiorina jumped into the race Wednesday after saying she has the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That is likely to pique the Club for Growth's interest.
Some of the internal GOP tension has arisen in part because Senate leaders have decided to endorse "electable" candidates who aren't palatable to conservatives. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said Wednesday that competitive primaries should be encouraged, noting that Mr. Christie, viewed as a centrist on some issues, won support from activists because he had won a party primary.
"Lots and lots of the tea-party activists and others who are concerned about health-care policy and energy policy are our natural allies," Mr. Barbour said.
To turn them out, Democrats may have to press ahead with a broad overhaul of immigration laws next year, including the creation of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
That might seal defeat for some Democrats in southern Republican districts -- such as Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia -- but could energize the Latino vote elsewhere and give Mr. Obama a head of steam heading into 2012.
Mr. Axelrod said the White House wouldn't make its decision on immigration based on political considerations. "The president is committed to immigration reform," he said. "When the support is there and ready to go, then he's ready to go."