Republicans won big victories in New Jersey and Virginia, taking back both governorships from the Democrats. But they suffered a stunning defeat in a congressional election in upstate New York. And if they don't learn the lessons of that loss, their comeback could collapse.
The most important number in politics this year was 9.8. That was the unemployment rate on Election Day and it's likely to go higher. Exit polls show that more than 80 percent of the voters in the two gubernatorial elections were worried about the economy, and the more upset they were, the more likely they were to vote Republican.
A year ago, voters who wanted change backed the Democrats. This year they swung to the GOP. If the economic recovery continues to sputter, 2010 could be a huge Republican year.
Unless the Republicans shoot themselves in the foot, and several other body parts as well. That is exactly what they did in New York's 23rd district, which has sent Republicans to Washington for more than a century.
Here's what happened. The incumbent Republican, John McHugh, resigned to become secretary of the Army. Local Republican leaders picked a moderate state legislator, Dede Scozzafava, to run for the seat. National conservative activists, led by Sarah Palin and a posse of talk show hosts, denounced Scozzafava as a heretic because she supported gay and abortion rights. Instead they backed Doug Hoffman, the candidate of New York's small but influential Conservative Party.
Faced with dwindling poll numbers and cash reserves, Scozzafava pulled out and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens, leaving Hoffman as the de facto Republican candidate. The result: Owens won.
GOP jihadists are parading Scozzafava's head around on a pike, and warning other centrists that they could be the next candidates for decapitation. Here's a typical blast from long-time conservative strategist Richard Viguerie: "Doug Hoffman and NY-23 is an earthquake in American politics, and is the first of many challenges to establishment Republicans that we will see for the 2010 elections and beyond."
On a gloomy day for the Democrats, statements like that give them heart. Some of them are probably making secret contributions to Palin's travel fund right now.
Independents, a key to Obama's victory, voted 2-to-1 Republican in New Jersey and Virginia. But hard-right candidates like Hoffman, who seem more concerned about gays getting married than workers getting hired, will drive them right back into the Democratic column.
National polls show widespread disenchantment with the Republican Party. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC survey, only 17 percent identified with the GOP (30 percent called themselves Democrats and 44 percent independents). With those numbers, how does it make sense to drive away your own supporters? On what planet do you get stronger by subtraction not addition?
That's why Newt Gingrich, no one's idea of a liberal, backed Scozzafava and scolded his fellow Republicans: "We have to decide which business we are in." Are we interested in merely "feeling good about ourselves," he asked, or in winning elections? "This idea that we're suddenly going to establish litmus tests, and all across the country, we're going to purge the party of anybody who doesn't agree with us 100 percent — that guarantees Obama's re-election. That guarantees (Nancy) Pelosi is speaker for life."
But a lot of purists are not listening. In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter quit the Republican Party and joined the Democrats when he faced a primary challenge backed by the same forces that skewered Scozzafava. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist, who had the audacity to support President Obama's stimulus package, is facing a challenge from the right in next year's Senate primary.
In South Carolina, the two Republican senators — Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint — are carrying on a public feud over the future of their party. DeMint has raised the purist pennant and declared, "I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who really believe in principles of limited government, free markets, free people, than to have 60 that don't have a set of beliefs."
Graham, like Gingrich, thinks that approach is nuts. Republicans need candidates "with a broader appeal," not a narrower one, he told the Myrtle Beach Sun News. "I don't want 30 pure Republicans because (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid would be the biggest beneficiary. (Democrats) would run over us."
That's the choice facing Republicans. Stay pure and lose. Or be more flexible and improve their chances of winning. Democrats are really, really hoping the purists win that argument.
Cokie Roberts' latest book is "Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation" (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.