Tuesday night's election results are certainly no crystal ball. But they do tell us a few important things about the upcoming midterm elections.
Things Change Rapidly
We learned a lesson Tuesday night that we should not soon forget. In an election climate this volatile, things change rapidly. Just weeks ago, Arlen Specter seemed almost guaranteed to win the Democratic nomination. Republicans thought they had a great shot at winning John Murtha's old congressional seat. Democrats thought they had little chance of winning a Senate seat in Kentucky and no chance of losing a Senate seat in Connecticut.
But yes, things do change.
Instead, in Tuesday night's elections, Joe Sestak defeated Arlen Specter by a healthy margin. The Democrats held onto John Murtha's district by an even healthier margin. Rand Paul, a candidate too far to the right even for the Republican leadership, won the Republican nomination in Kentucky, giving Democrats their best possible chance to win a Senate seat there.
(And somewhere in Connecticut, Richard Blumenthal's campaign staff continued to think that lying about serving in Vietnam doesn't warrant a real apology.)
There are sure to be more changes between now and November, many that we can't foresee. But we do know some of what's to come. We know that the political climate will almost certainly continue to improve for the Democratic Party.
Later this week, the Senate is expected to pass an unexpectedly strong Wall Street reform bill. Two weeks from now, we are likely to find out that, for the third month in a row, the U.S. economy experienced six-figure job growth. Already, national public opinion polls are showing dramatic improvement in voter optimism about the economy and the direction the country is headed. If Democrats can have this good of a night in May, they are almost sure to beat expectations in November.
The Tea Party Isn't Done Ruining the GOP.
Rand Paul's victory won't be the only primary win for the tea party. Over the coming months, tea party candidates are going to win plenty more Republican nominations. In districts that are conservative enough, that will still ensure a Republican victory in the general election. But in a lot of districts, nominating candidates who subscribe to the full gamut of tea party craziness--from birtherism to repealing voting rights to abolishing the Department of Education and Federal Reserve--will help Democrats retain seats that could have otherwise gone to the GOP.
And it's not just primaries the Republicans should be worried about. We can expect a lot of third party challenges from the right once primary season has ended. The more the Tea Party tries to purify the GOP, the more divorced it will become from the rest of the country.
Despite the conventional wisdom, that is simply not a recipe for a successful wave election.
A lot of analysis of Congressional elections tends to look at only the national picture. We determine how well the Democrats will do based on movements in the generic congressional ballot. We make assumptions about the outcomes in November, not based on the dynamics in each individual race, but based on snapshots of the general mood.
But as we saw tonight, this kind of analysis ignores a critical component of elections: the campaigns themselves.
Well-executed campaigns and strong candidates do influence the outcome of elections. And there is little denying that over the last few election cycles, the Democratic Party has become exceedingly good at running congressional campaigns. On Tuesday night the DCCC won its eleventh special election in a row. The Democrats enter the November midterms with better strategists, better tacticians, a bigger war chest, and a wisdom that comes from consistently winning tough races in tough districts.
The public's frustration with the pace of economic recovery and their lack of trust for Washington institutions will not be the only dynamic at play in November. Republicans have weak candidates, wayward campaigns, and a national party with an abysmal track record. Losing the Pennsylvania special election was a huge missed opportunity for the GOP. The Republican Party cannot lose races like that and still expect to retake the majority. And if they can't win an easy pickup when they are exclusively focused on it, it's hard to imagine them pulling off victories deep in Democratic territory while handling more than fifty races at a time.
Tuesday night doesn't tell us what will happen in November. But it does tell us what won't happen. The Republicans aren't going to walk away with this thing. Not without a fight. And toe-to-toe, the Democrats have proven, again and again, that they are the better fighters.