In New York's 23rd Congressional district, where longtime Republican Rep. John McHugh stepped down to be Army secretary, Dede Scozzafava, the candidate chosen by state GOP leaders to replace him, was forced out of the race by a surging Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman. High-profile national Republicans endorsed Hoffman, saying Scozzafava, a state assemblywoman who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, had abandoned core GOP values.
In the New Jersey governor's race, independent Chris Daggett has gone from afterthought to player in a contest pitting the unpopular incumbent, Democrat Jon Corzine, against Republican Chris Christie.
Daggett is not expected to win the New Jersey contest, and the GOP split in upstate New York could throw the race to Democrat Bill Owens.
But the impact of those candidacies on the high-profile contests points to an anti-incumbent, anti-establishment sentiment that could be a prevailing theme in the 2010 congressional elections and beyond.
"What it says is the public is looking for less self-interested parties and candidates who can reflect the needs of a very frustrated public,'' said Douglas Astolfi, a history professor at Florida's St. Leo University. "We have two wars and we're in a recession that neither party seems to address in any positive way. There's a deep sense that government has abandoned the common man. People are frustrated and angry.''
Indeed, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll released last week found that trust in government is at a 12-year low, and half of all Americans now support the creation of a new political party.
Both parties ignore such sentiment at their peril in 2010 and perhaps into the 2012 presidential race.
In Senate contests from Florida and Kentucky to New Hampshire next year, conservatives furious at the Republican establishment are mounting primary challenges against more mainstream candidates favored by the national party.
On the other side, Democratic strategists worry that progressives, disgusted by the big money bank bailout and disillusioned with President Barack Obama's lack of fight on issues such as a government-run health insurance plan, might keep some people from voting. That could cost Democrats seats up and down the ballot.
Political operatives are keeping an eye on independent voters -- an important and growing group that often decides elections. Will these voters send a signal to politicians Tuesday as well or will they stay home and leave it to the more ideologically driven base voters in both parties?
That was the case in the New York race, where polling found Scozzafava had fallen well behind her Hoffman and Owens, making it essentially a two-man contest days ago.
Sensing opportunity, ambitious conservatives across the country have jumped on the Hoffman bandwagon. The most prominent is Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee and a potential high-profile contender for the White House in 2012.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, also looking at 2012, has announced his support for Hoffman. So has Chuck DeVore, a conservative California assemblyman hoping to run in a U.S. Senate primary against Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard executive backed by national Republicans to take on the Democratic incumbent, Barbara Boxer.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich had endorsed Scozzafava, drawing the enmity of conservative bloggers scoffing at the possibility of a Gingrich presidential run in 2012.
Hoffman's rise infuriated leaders of New York's Republican Party, who insisted Scozzafava was a good fit for the district which favored Obama last year, but is one of the few still held by Republicans in the Northeast.
In New Jersey, Daggett, a businessman and former Environmental Protection Agency official, has appealed to voters who are turned off by both Corzine and Christie and fed up with the candidates' campaign bloodbath. Daggett was widely believed to be the winner of a televised candidate debate and has been endorsed by The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., the state's largest newspaper.
John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, said Daggett's candidacy had succeeded in giving disillusioned voters a competent and credible alternative to Corzine and Christie.
But Weingart said lack of money, the institutional obstacles to a third party candidacy and a growing awareness among voters of the ideological differences between Christie and Corzine would cause Daggett's campaign to stall.
"To vote for an independent candidate, you have to believe either that the person can win or that there is no difference you care about between the Democratic and the Republican candidate,'' Weingart said.
A Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday found Corzine ahead of Christie by a 43-38 percent margin with 13 percent for Daggett and 5 percent undecided. But a majority of voters said they had an unfavorable view of both Corzine and Christie.
In the 1992 presidential race, money wasn't an issue for billionaire businessman Ross Perot, whose rise was powered by the same kind of populist anger brewing today. Perot vastly altered the dynamic of that contest, running as an independent and winning 19 percent of the vote.
Democrat Bill Clinton was the beneficiary of that three-way contest, taking away the presidency from George H.W. Bush with just a plurality of the vote. Clinton did so in part by adding a populist flair to his message, drawing voters who had been attracted to Perot.
Detachment from the major parties some of the success of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, another billionaire who appealed to a city craving for competence in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.,
Bloomberg, who ran as a Republican that year, announced in 2007 that he would switch parties and become and independent, leading to speculation he would run for president at some point. Bloomberg is expected to cruise to a third term on Election Day.