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Down-ballot races showed deep ideological and regional divides across America

Apart from Mitt Romney’s failure to persuade Americans to fire President Barack Obama and hire him instead, Tuesday’s election results included some significant down-ballot lessons about the 2012 political balance in a sharply divided America.

First, moderate/centrist Democrats in Republican-leaning states or congressional districts can survive and thrive.

While it’s true that the “Blue Dog” caucus of centrist Democrats in the House has dwindled since 2006, it isn’t entirely gone and the victories of Rep. Jim Matheson in Utah, Rep. John Barrow in Georgia, and the apparent victory of Rep. Mike McIntyre in North Carolina, show that centrist Democrats with long incumbency, ample campaign funding (including from super PACs), high name recognition in their districts, and good survival skills can win even as their states vote Republican in the presidential election.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Va., explains how the GOP can rebrand beginning with its policies on immigration and other issues.

Matheson, Barrow and McIntyre all voted against Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010.

House Majority PAC, the Democratic super PAC, spent $480,000 on ads to help Matheson, while Crossroads GPS went on the air early in 2011 to try to defeat him.

Matheson’s opponent, Mia Love, a Haitian-American immigrant with an appealing life story got star prime-time treatment at the Republican convention in Tampa in August.

Love had to contend not only with the Matheson name (his father had served as popular governor of Utah in the 1970s and 1980s) and his money, but with news media stories about her constituents’ complaints that she was not focusing enough on her job as mayor of Saratoga Spring, Utah.

The pro-Matheson ads portrayed Love as a big spender who raised taxes: “If you like how she raised taxes in Utah, you’ll love Mia Love in Congress.”

George Frey / Reuters

Mia Love talks to the press from the party headquarters as results come in for the U.S. presidential election in Salt Lake City, Utah, Nov. 6, 2012.

Whether Democrats such as Matheson can exert much influence as minority members of the minority party in the House is doubtful. But if the Democrats are to regain the House majority in 2014 or 2016, they will need to keep Democrats such as Matheson.

Meanwhile in one of the biggest Senate victories for the Democrats, a Blue Dog from Indiana, Rep. Joe Donnelly, scored an upset victory over Republican Richard Mourdock in Indiana. While Donnelly did vote for the ACA, he has occasionally parted company from Democratic leadership. Like Matheson, McIntyre, and Barrow, Donnelley voted against the 2009 Waxman-Markey “cap-and trade” program for limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the election of Donnelly and the re-election of Democrats such as Matheson who can thrive on GOP turf, Tuesday’s results also showed that the divide between socially liberal Democratic estates and socially conservative Republican states remains as deep as ever – a fact evident both in congressional representation and in votes on social policy.

Olympia Snowe joins Andrea Mitchell Reports to discuss how the GOP can repair their relationship with women and minorities.

States which Obama won – Maryland, Washington, and Maine – voted to approve initiatives that legalize marriages between same-sex couples. Another Obama state, Minnesota, rejected an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage in traditional terms. But 32 states still restrict marriage to man-woman couples (and Romney won most of those states).

Similarly, it was in states that Obama won, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Washington, where voters approved measures legalizing recreational marijuana smoking or medical use of the drug.

But Republican states were moving in a more conservative direction Tuesday. Voters in Arkansas rejected a medical marijuana ballot initiative. Voters in Alabama, Montana, Missouri, and Wyoming, all states which Romney easily won, approved measures blocking the implementation of the ACA.

The Democrats’ solid south of the 20th century has become the Republican solid south of the early 21st century, a fact evident not only in Romney carrying the South (with the exception of Virginia and possibly Florida), but in the battle for control of state legislatures.

In Arkansas, Republicans took control of the state Senate, and have a tentative majority the House. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, if the Arkansas House numbers hold, it will be the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans have controlled the state.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Supporters cheer at an election watch party for proponents of Referendum 74, which would uphold the state's new same-sex marriage law, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Seattle.

Meanwhile the Obama states were demonstrating their Democratic leanings in state legislative races: Democrats took control of the Colorado House, the New Hampshire House, and both houses of the legislatures in Maine and Minnesota.

Finally, organized labor proved on Tuesday that it remains as significant a part of the Democratic constituency as it has since the 1930s. For example the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) played a big role in attacking

Republican Senate candidate Denny Rehberg in Montana, helping first-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester save his seat. AFSCME money also helped defeat Republican Senate candidate Rick Berg in North Dakota and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. AFSCME spent more than $17 million on independent expenditures in the 2012 campaign.

Elsewhere AFSCME helped defeat a Michigan ballot proposal that would have given state-appointed emergency managers the power to terminate public employee contracts in cash-strapped cities.