WASHINGTON -- Republicans think Democrats may be hyperventilating over a few major wins in Tuesday's local elections, but even they were willing to admit the climate will be much tougher for the GOP next year than last.
Republican campaign strategists who were willing to talk on background so they could be candid about the results pointed to plenty of high points for their side. But they also acknowledged that Democratic wins in Arizona, Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio on key issues gives the other side reason to be excited.
"Dems have something to be fired up about," one admitted. "Our base has only one thing that will motivate them to the polls: Barack Obama."
Another strategist predicted 2012 would be highly competitive, but qualified that by saying the assessment was true before Tuesday's contests.
All pointed to several trouble spots for Democrats, however, especially Virginia, where Republicans appear to have taken over the state Senate, and therefore control of drawing new congressional districts next year.
"The Dems lost six seats in the Virginia House, and one, maybe two seats and control, in the Senate," one strategist argued. "And it only wasn't worse because their candidates distanced themselves from Obama -- a luxury Tim Kaine won't have next year," he said, referring to the close race for the state's U.S. Senate seat between the former Democratic National Committee chairman and former Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen.
A Democratic official responded that Republicans had actually been expected to do a lot better in the Senate, suggesting the mood in Virginia is changing.
While many Democrats were most excited about defeating an anti-union law in Ohio passed by Gov. John Kasich -- known as Issue 2 on the ballot -- Republicans argued it was just a sign of unions spending big.
And they argued it was tens of millions the unions would not have available to spend in 2012, when Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown is up for reelection. They also said the more telling vote was on Issue 3 -- an initiative to bar the state from requiring people to buy health insurance.
"It was Issue 3, which was an implicit rejection of the individual mandate and Obamacare, that actually received the most votes in Ohio last night," one Republican operative said. "In other words, even without millions of dollars spent as with Issue 2, 66 percent of Ohioans said that they didn't support a key component of President Obama and Sherrod Brown's health care bill. And that's bad news for Republicans?"
"Obamacare was still rejected by a large margin in Ohio, by the same blue collar union voters who voted for the collective bargaining measure," another GOP operative said. "Goes to show you that Obama has some things to worry about following last night's results."
"If you're looking at predictors for next year, what's a more likely issue to be debated -- collective bargaining, when Kasich isn't even on the ballot, or health care and government spending?" one of the strategist's asked rhetorically.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Matt Canter said, indeed, collective bargaining -- and the shrinking incomes of middle class workers -- will matter more.
"Republicans need to wake up and realize this is not 2010 and this election is not going to be about health care," Canter said. "It is going to be about the economy, plain and simple."
Another Democratic official -- and some local analysts -- argued that while the health care measure got more votes, it was the union bill that drove turnout.
"The referendum got more votes than Governor Kasich did, in a Republican wave election year [in 2010]," the official said. "That's a really bad sign for them in Ohio."
Brown himself was ecstatic, declaring in a conference call with reporters that the "middle class pushed back."
And he emphasized that he thinks it shows Republicans will have to be more favorable to unions or lose. "The public wants to know whose side you're on," Brown said. "Are you on the side of the middle class, or not?"
In other good signs for Democrats, they pointed to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear winning handily, even though Republicans had predicted the days of Democrats winning there were over.
And in Arizona, Democrats were especially ecstatic that lead author of the state's stringent immigration lost a recall election, albeit to another Republican.
Operatives saw in the vote improved chances to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl -- especially if Richard Carmona, a former member of George H. W. Bush's administration, enters the race for Democrats.
Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, sent an election memo Wednesday, declaring, "With less than a year to go until the 2012 elections, the Republican Party is licking its wounds and paying a price for its far right wing, Tea Party-dictated agenda."