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NY, NV special elections: A big victory or no big deal?

By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Deputy Political Director
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Republican wins Weiner's old seat
  • Republican Bob Turner wins in the special election to fill New York's 9th congressional seat
  • In Nevada, Republican Mark Amodei defeated Democrat Kate Marshall to win House seat
  • National Republicans tried to make this contest a referendum on the president
  • Top Democrat says the results "are not reflective of what will happen in November 2012"

Washington (CNN) -- Republican victories in both special congressional elections Tuesday night either signal a major shift in the national electorate or are really no big deal. It all depends on who you talk to.

In the weeks leading up to both contests, national Republicans framed the races as referendums on President Barack Obama and the job he's doing on the economy.

So the question at hand: Are the GOP victories in the House contests in Nevada's 2nd District and New York's 9th District a sign of things to come in next year's elections, or were they local contests dominated by local issues that don't really serve as a barometer for 2012?

"In both districts, the election was a referendum on the failed policies of President Obama and congressional Democrats. Less than a week after the president outlined his 'jobs plan,' voters went to the polls and sent two new Republicans to Washington, overwhelmingly rejecting Obama's Stimulus II," Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. He added that the election results "should be cause for concern for Democrats across the country."

National Democrats, however, had a different take.

We've asked the people of this district to send a message to Washington, and I hope they hear it loud and clear
--New York Republican Bob Turner

"Special elections are always difficult: They are low-turnout, high-intensity races," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He believes that the results Tuesday night "are not reflective of what will happen in November 2012."

So who's right? And are we reading too much into the results?

In Nevada, Republican Mark Amodei defeated Democrat Kate Marshall to win a House seat vacated after a senator's affair and resignation. Former Rep. Dean Heller, a Republican, was appointed to replace GOP Sen. John Ensign, who resigned in May amid an ethics investigation after he acknowledged an affair with a staffer's wife.

Read more on the Nevada special election

Both the Amodei and Marshall campaigns centered on tying the opposing candidate to Washington. By doing that, this election became a referendum, if just applicable to northern Nevada, on who in Washington is more tainted in the eyes of voters.

Amodei regularly linked Marshall with Democrats in Washington, particularly Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Marshall, on the other hand, tried to link Amodei with Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and his plan to privatize Medicare for anyone younger than 55. In an ad that ran in August, Marshall charged that Amodei had called Ryan's plan "excellent."

Republicans have represented Nevada's 2nd congressional district -- which covers almost the entire state, except the southern tip and the Las Vegas metropolitan area -- since it was created in 1983.

When Marshall was named as the Democratic candidate, there was some hope that the party could make the race competitive, but Amodei ended up winning the election by 22 points. That could spell trouble next year for the president. Obama won the battleground state in the 2008 election by 12 points, losing the second congressional district by only 89 votes out of more than 330,000 votes cast.

In New York's 9th congressional district, the Republican candidate, former cable TV executive Bob Turner, defeated Democratic state assemblyman David Weprin 54% to 46%, pulling a huge upset that few would have predicted just months ago.

Read more on the New York race

Democrats have a 3-to-1 voter advantage in the district, which covers parts of the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

National Republicans also tried to make this contest a referendum on the president.

"We've asked the people of this district to send a message to Washington, and I hope they hear it loud and clear," Turner said in his victory speech. "Mr. President, you are on the wrong track."

But other issues, such as America's relationship with Israel and the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York state, played a role in a district where Orthodox Jews make up a large part of the constituency.

Weprin was hurt by being tied to the president's polices on Israel, and the vote can be seen as a message from Jewish Democrats who were upset with Obama's policies on Israel, including his position this year that any future Mideast peace solution should consider Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders.

Read more: Does Dems' loss mean trouble for the Democratic Party?

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch crossed party lines to endorse Turner.

"I like President Obama. ... I helped get him elected," Koch said at Turner's election night party. "But he threw Israel under the bus."

The Republican Jewish Coalition says the election has "huge implications for 2012 races in states with large Jewish communities, such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania."

Meanwhile, the National Organization for Marriage cited Weprin's vote for the same-sex marriage amendment in Albany as the reason he lost. Though dominated by Democrats, the district is anything but liberal when it comes to social issues. But looking ahead to the next election, if same-sex marriage is on the ballot in some battleground states in November 2012, it could be troublesome to the president.

In both races, Democrats tried to highlight Medicare, which worked for them in a special congressional election in May, when they won back a vacant seat from the Republicans in New York's 24th congressional district.

This time around, "Medicare didn't trump anything and that's got to be a concern for Democrats," said Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

"The New York results, in particular, are worrisome for Democrats because Democratic voters cast ballots for the Republican candidate.

Rothenberg said that in Nevada, "the Democrats didn't come close and it's an other sign of how different the political environment has changed from 2008."

But how accurate are such special elections?

Rothenberg warns that it's dangerous to over read such contests, saying they tend to be quirky.

"They don't predict what's going to happen a year or two down the road. It's often helpful to add a dose of caution in interpreting and explaining special elections and particularly in projecting out from such contests," Rothenberg added.

Remember, Democratic victories in special elections in 2009 and 2010 were followed by a dramatic GOP landslide in the November 2010 midterm elections.

CNN's Ashley Killough contributed to this report.