WASHINGTON - Every election matters. Anyone that tells you otherwise doesn't understand politics.
That said, not every election sends sweeping messages that are easy to discern, but every election provides lessons worth learning.
And that brings us to this Tuesday's elections.
Here's the thing: The lessons are already known, no matter the results.
We know that whether Jon Corzine wins or loses, he won't get 50 percent, meaning more than half of the state voted to oust him in a very blue state.
We know that the Republican Party has to deal with two rifts, one that is ideological, the other a battle between the establishment and grassroots. The two rifts are not interchangeable.
We know that not being associated with either political party is a net plus with many voters — from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's expected victory, to Chris Daggett's influence in New Jersey, to Doug Hoffman's rise in New York's 23rd Congressional District.
And we know that the president's coattails have gotten shorter.
The first evidence, of course, appeared in Georgia late last year. That’s when the Democrat in the Senate runoff got trounced, in spite of Obama’s popularity peak. He simply didn’t have the Obama turnout machine behind him. So even during the best of times, Obama's brand is not always transferable. So why should we believe he can be the difference now?
So it isn't about whether or not Tuesday's elections matter. Tuesday is about which party learns the messages voters are sending. And which party over-interprets or under-interprets those messages.
The angry independent
Let's start with what should be the biggest lesson: The return of the angry independent.
The one thing Daggett and Hoffman have in common is that they both have anti-establishment, anti-political party credentials. And both used those attributes to gain credibility.
While lots of folks want to paint 2010 as either a midterm election like 1994 (Democratic over-reach backlash), or 1982 (economic angst), let me suggest that things are looking more like 1992, when a billionaire gadfly galvanized the radical middle.
Distrust in government is running at record highs, as evident in our latest NBC-WSJ poll. Couple that with the economic angst and the fact that Washington looks too cozy with Wall Street, and industry in general, and you have a recipe for a potentially tumultuous electorate.
Candidates who stand up to the establishment and find a reform message will benefit, no matter their party label. Obviously, this isn't easy for incumbents which is why I expect you'll see many looking for ways to take symbolic stands, to send the message they are trying to shake things up.
The elected official who most needs to do this is President Obama. He needs a veto of some Democratic, pork-filled bill. Or a high-profile firing. The fact is there are a lot of "change" voters from 2008 who are still looking for change. Many of these voters are angry independents.
NY 23’s example
The second lesson to come out of these elections is from upstate New York. It is an exaggerated example of what the GOP is facing internally, but it's playing out on the national stage and in the conservative blogosphere.
Doug Hoffman's likely victory in New York’s 23rd District may be the start of the Republican Party finding its grassroots groove, to propel themselves back into the majority by 2012. Or, as Democrats and some DC-based GOP strategists believe, it will be emblematic of a party that has become too insular and too conservative, and has turned off independents to the point where a less-than-popular incumbent president will be able to win re-election in 2012.
Hoffman's likely victory, combined with the forced party switch of Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, has conservatives emboldened, particularly the folks at the Club for Growth. The first half of 2010 is going to be a fight inside the party about finding balance — and whether or not candidates should "fit" districts or states even if it means they aren't down the line conservatives.
Like in NY's 23rd, there will be high profile fights in places like Utah and Florida, where establishment Republican senate candidates will find themselves up against grassroots-supported conservative challenges.
The problem facing Utah Sen. Bob Bennett is less known nationally, but the Club for Growth has been relentless in its early attacks. One can see a conservative making Bennett's life miserable. Some might be surprised to see Bennett targeted by conservatives; he's not exactly associated with the moderate wing of the GOP. However, Bennett is an Institutionalist, a believer in Washington and its system of legislating, and that's not going to be popular in the grassroots of either party in 2010.
But Florida is also getting attention. Gov. Charlie Crist couldn't scare former state House Speaker Marco Rubio out of the race. And Crist's embrace of President Obama during the early '09 stimulus debate has become a galvanizing moment for conservatives who never warmed to Crist. It's going to be a long campaign, and there is too much time for Crist to simply run out of the clock. The fact that he's only up 2-1 on Rubio now is a big problem. Crist's best hope is to somehow disqualify Rubio early, before the race becomes solely a referendum on Crist. It could be an ugly few months in Florida and the primary isn't until the summer.
One should not give short shrift to what's going on in Virginia either.
Republican Bob McDonnell's possible landslide win is truly remarkable given how poorly the Virginia GOP has done over the last eight years. McDonnell is on the verge of doing something George Allen, John McCain and Jim Gilmore all failed to do there and that's win.
But there are a few other things about this race that shouldn't be overlooked.
First, McDonnell avoided a divisive primary and didn't have to "run right" before running to the middle in the general. In fact, McDonnell got to run to the middle the entire year — his ads project a pragmatic problem solver who can work with both parties. It should be a model for Republican gubernatorial candidates in 2010, and perhaps for any Republican pondering a presidential run in 2012.
But will it be the model? Does the ideological and establishment fight inside the party get in the way of a McDonnell blueprint?
McDonnell isn’t going to win this race simply because he was a Republican and there was some Democratic backlash in Virginia. He had to brand himself as a center-right politician who was acceptable to swing voters in the state. And he’s done that well.
Second, McDonnell was of course helped by the inept campaign run by Democrat Creigh Deeds. But the irony is this: Deeds is the most centrist/moderate Democrat the party has nominated this century. He is to the right of Mark Warner, Tim Kaine and Jim Webb, but he was painted as someone more liberal than any of those three. These mistakes are on Deeds and his campaign. It's a good reminder that campaigns matter. Deeds won the Democratic primary because of who he wasn’t, not because of who he was. He was an idea, not a candidate. He had an opening and he missed it. McDonnell had an opening and filled it.
Others to watch
There are a few other contests worth keeping an eye on.
Could Boston Mayor Thomas Menino be in trouble?
What about the anti-tax initiatives in Maine and Washington? Could both pass given the current anti-government climate?
And could new mayors in Houston and Atlanta become future stars?
Regardless of those outcomes, Republicans are going to get a booster shot of confidence Tuesday, and that should lead to better candidate recruiting as well as better fundraising heading in to 2010.
As for the Democrats, they aren't anywhere near the lows they were at in 1993 and early 1994. Could things turn against them? Possibly. But the party now seems in better shape to avoid a midterm disaster.
Yet you may see a bunch of incumbent Democratic members of Congress start running for the hills, particularly if Corzine loses.
The president needs a Corzine victory – if only to calm his troops on Capitol Hill, and show he has enough juice to keep them from losing in 2010.