For all the frustration surrounding the economy, voters refused to throw incumbent parties out of governors' and most big-city mayors' offices, and they turned back an Ohio law that aimed to ease grinding budget problems by restricting the union rights of public employees.
In the heart of the Bible Belt, a Mississippi initiative that would have defined life as beginning at fertilization also went down to defeat, ending a plan to use it to challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established the right to abortion.
Across the nation, voters' last major judgments of 2011 were sure to be closely analyzed for any clues about the public's political mood just two months ahead of the first presidential primary and nearly four years into the worst economic slowdown since the Depression.
Kentucky's Democratic governor easily won another term, and Mississippi voters kept their governor's office in GOP hands — decisions that suggested many Americans were not ready to abandon the parties in power.
In Ohio, a hotly debated new law that severely limited the bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees was repealed with more than 60 percent of the vote. The defeat was a stinging blow to Gov. John Kasich and cast doubt on other Republican governors who have sought union-limiting measures as a means to curb spending.
"Ohio sent a message to every politician out there: Go in and make war on your employees rather than make jobs with your employees, and you do so at your own peril," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.
Kasich congratulated his opponents and pledged to consider his next steps carefully.
"I've heard their voices. I understand their decision, and frankly, I respect what people have to say in an effort like this," he said, adding that the vote requires him "to take a deep breath" and "spend some time reflecting on what happened here."
The disputed law permitted workers to negotiate wages but not pensions or health care benefits, and it banned public-worker strikes, scrapped binding arbitration and eliminated annual raises for teachers.
The outcome will no doubt be studied by presidential candidates as a gauge of the Ohio electorate, which is seen as a bellwether. No Republican has won the White House without Ohio, and only two Democrats have done so in more than a century.
Elsewhere on the ballot, Ohio voters approved a proposal to prohibit people from being required to buy health insurance as part of the national health care overhaul. The vote was mostly symbolic, but Republicans hoped to use it in a legal challenge.
The governors' races were of keen interest to both parties. Ten states will elect governors next year, and governors can marshal get-out-the-vote efforts crucial to any White House candidate. The first presidential primary is Jan. 10 in New Hampshire.
In Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear was easily re-elected despite high unemployment, budget shortfalls and an onslaught of third-party attack ads. He became the second Democrat to win a governor's race this year, after West Virginia's Earl Ray Tomblin.
In Mississippi, voters picked Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant to succeed Haley Barbour, who could not run again because of term limits. Bryant beat Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree, the first black major-party nominee for governor in Mississippi.
The Mississippi measure to define life as beginning at fertilization would have been the first victory in the country for the so-called personhood movement, which aims to make abortion all but illegal. Similar attempts have failed in Colorado and are under way elsewhere.
The proposal divided the medical and religious communities and caused some of the most ardent abortion opponents, including Barbour, to waver in their support.
Opponents said the measure would have made some forms of birth control, such as the morning-after pill or the intrauterine device, illegal. And they worried that it could have deterred physicians from performing in vitro fertilization for fear of criminal charges if an embryo did not survive.
In Arizona, state Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the tough immigration law that put the state at the forefront of the national debate, was ousted after a recall attempt led by a fellow Republican.
Other votes of note:
— Hundreds of cities held mayoral races, including some of the nation's largest. In San Francisco, interim Mayor Ed Lee had a strong lead in early returns and would become the city's first elected Asian-American mayor if he wins. But it could be days before final results are known because of a complicated system in which voters rank their top three candidates.
In Philadelphia, Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter trounced a little-known Republican challenger.
Phoenix elected Democrat Greg Stanton, a former city council member, as its new mayor after a campaign focused on pulling the nation's sixth-largest city out its economic and foreclosure slump.
Incumbent mayors also prevailed in Baltimore and Indianapolis.
— Comic-turned-politician Robert Farmer lost his bid to become Kentucky's agriculture commissioner. Farmer told hillbilly jokes that upset some people, and he had no farming experience. In Ohio, another comedian, Drew Hastings, a fixture on "Comedy Central," became mayor of tiny Hillsboro.
— In Maine, voters repealed a new state law that required voters to register at least two days before an election. The decision restored Election Day voter registration, which had been available for nearly four decades. A proposal to allow casinos in certain communities was rejected.
— Washington state voters approved a plan to end the state-run liquor system and allow large stores to sell alcohol. The proposal was bankrolled by giant retailer Costco, which spent more than $22 million, making it the costliest initiative in Washington history.
— Atlanta overwhelmingly approved Sunday alcohol sales, clearing the way for shoppers to buy liquor in stores as soon as New Year's Day.
— Oregon held a special primary to replace Democratic Rep. David Wu, who resigned in August after being accused of an unwanted sexual encounter with an 18-year-old woman. Wu was the fourth member of Congress to quit this year in a sex scandal.
Associated Press Writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.