Not two days ago, a veteran Democratic operative told me that he expected Tuesday's election results to be a death knell for Republican moderates. But after the votes were counted, the message is that extremists are out and economic concerns are in, as voters chose a Democrat over a conservative in a New York congressional seat and two governors' races were decided over economic concerns.
Pundits will no doubt try to use the results to prognosticate for the 2010 congressional midterms, but the real significance of Tuesday's results is how they will influence politicians in the coming months, not what they predict for voter behavior a year from now.
By far the largest national story is the result of a special congressional election in New York's 23rd District, left vacant after the Democratic incumbent became Obama's secretary of the Army. When local GOP officials picked a moderate Republican assemblywoman, Dede Scozzafava, to fend off Democratic challenger Bill Owens, conservatives rallied around third-party candidate Doug Hoffman. With the help of endorsements and money from outside the district, Hoffman and his allies -- ranging from the conservative netroots to former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska -- succeeded in driving Scozzafava from the race.
Nonetheless, Owens' jobs-focused campaign prevailed, in a rebuke to conservatives who rallied around a candidate so extreme Scozzafava felt compelled to endorse her Democratic rival for a seat that has been a Republican redoubt for well over a century. The win is a victory for the Democrats' strategy of picking candidates who fit their districts and seek out independent voters, a strategy which gained them a majority in 2006 and expanded it last year.
Republicans argue that the conservative insurgency in NY-23 is akin to the successful strategy of the progressive netroots during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles. The same Hoffman-backers are ginning up support for a conservative Republican, Marc Rubio, in the Florida Senate primary, and there are reports that conservative Eric Wallace may run as an independent in Illinois' Senate race, hurting Republican front-runner Mark Kirk. Progressive activists, though, proved much more partisan -- in the truest sense -- than the conservatives activists who backed Hoffman. Despite friction with party leaders and a passion for primary challenges, they didn't support third-party candidates against Democratic nominees.
Democrats hope, perversely, that these challenges from the right become common in 2010, dividing the Republican electoral base and easing the path for a united Democratic Party. But that dynamic could be poisonous in Congress, where President Obama's legislative agenda is often held up in the search for the Republican votes demanded by conservative Democrats -- a hard task that is about to be made even more difficult if every centrist GOPer is looking over their shoulder.
Republicans are celebrating their two gubernatorial victories -- Virginia and New Jersey. But these races have smaller national implications than the Democrats' congressional victories -- Democrats also successfully defended a seat in California -- because governors' races hinge on the management of local issues, not the debates that capture the national stage. Majorities in both states said President Obama had little to do with their voting decisions. In a recession, governors are forced to cut services and inflict economic pain. Unsurprisingly, voters in both states said the economy was their top voting issue.
Democrats were the incumbents in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. (Virigina's governor is bound by a one-term limit, and the last two have been Democrats.) Voters have watched these incumbents make unpleasant choices in a sinking economy, giving an early advantage to their opposition. Neither Democratic candidate was particularly inspiring, and in New Jersey -- where corruption scandals contributed to a throw-the-bums-out mood -- an independent candidate, Christopher Daggett, likely siphoned off some good government support that might have gone the way of incumbent Jon Corzine, helping push Republican challenger Chris Christie into office.
In Virginia, Republican victor Bob McDonnell kept his well-run campaign relentlessly focused on jobs despite State Sen. Creigh Deeds' efforts to highlight McDonnell's extreme positions on social issues. It's a lesson to Democrats: They need to focus on the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, transportation, and education if they want to keep the trust of voters while the recession drags on.
Nonetheless, there is still some concern for Democrats on social issues: In centrist Maine, a referendum overturning the state legislature's decision to legalize gay marriage succeeded. This is the first time voters rejected marriage equality legislation passed by a state legislature. The success of the referendum should be a rebuke to President Obama, who did nothing in a race where his support could have made the difference between victory and defeat.
While by no means signaling disaster in 2010, the elections highlight the issues on which Obama and his party need to focus if they wish to maintain their governing majority -- getting people back to work and leading the economy out of the recession.
"We as Democrats have made gains by winning difficult seats," the Democratic operative said on Monday. "If we go zero for three, Democrats have really got to take stock and take notice and really think about what we're doing."
They went one for three. But if they don't understand why, they may see a goose egg in 2010.