First apologies for the absence. I had hoped to liveblog Tuesday's results, but I have one word for you: rotovirus. After my bout with hand/foot/mouth disease two weeks ago all I can say is that life gets interesting after your kid starts pre-school. They become glorified little germ factories.
Republicans are obviously in relatively high spirits after the thumpin' of
incumbent challenger Jim Martin in Tuesday's special elections. It was pretty widely expected that Saxby Chambliss would win re-election, but most people expected at best an eight-to-ten-point win (the number I had in my mind). Chambliss won by about fifteen points.
Reactions and interpretations to the election have been varied. For a good roundup of reactions, check out MichaelW's post at QandO. My sense is this: It is a good datapoint for the GOP, but it is only one datapoint. It is far too early to conclude that the GOP is on the mend, or that Democrats' standing with the voters has begun to decline. On the other hand, I think we have some good evidence for the following:
1) This election is only a datapoint, but it is a useful datapoint -- Although turnout was lower than the general election, this was a very high turnout special election. Chambliss actually received about 200,000 more votes than he received in the 2002 midterm election, while Martin received about as many votes as Cleland did that year. In other words, I'm more comfortable with using this election as a datapoint than I am with using most other special elections (not very).
2) "Save the filibuster" is a useful slogan for 2010 -- Democrats are going to have a harder time in the 2010 Senate midterms than many expect right now. This isn't to say that they are doomed, or are going to lose seats, or anything like that; just that we have some evidence that the size of their majorities poses a potential problem for them. One of the theories for why the President's party has lost seats in almost every midterm election going back to the Era of Good Feelings is that voters rationally choose to counterbalance the President by beefing up the opposition party. If this is the case, then the prospect of truly unlimited power for the President's party should act as a significant brake on that party's ability to advance to sixty seats, absent some good luck (eg if the Senate election rotation was timed such that Republicans had open seats in heavily blue states like Rhode Island and California this time around, such that voters there wanted such power for the President, against the wishes of much of the rest of the country).
Polling data show that a good chunk of Martin's voters were concerned enough about the prospect of a filibuster-proof Democratic majority to call into question whether they would vote for him. We don't know how many of Chambliss's voters in the special election echoed this concern, but given the Rasmussen result, we may be able to infer that they are not inconsequential in number. And that's at a time when Obama has approval ratings in the 60s, something that is unlikely to last once he gets to business of actually governing. Assuming that Obama's approvals only decline to the mid-50s by 2010 (which would be an outstanding result for him), the "save the filibuster" attack would hold considerable promise for a GOP that is only defending three seats in states that went for Obama by more than his national average (and only marginally so at that).
3) Obama had coattails -- We knew this before the election, but this gives us some idea as to the magnitude of how many people showed up just to vote for him. I'd been skeptical that we'd really seen a permanent upward tick of black participation in the electorate, or that youth participation would remain as high going into 2010. This lends some support to that theory. For a fuller explanation, see Michael Barone's excellent breakdown of the November/December election results in Georgia.
4) The real test is Saturday -- On Saturday a Republican and Democrat will face off in the election for the Fourth Congressional district in Louisiana. What makes this election somewhat useful is that this district has a similar partisan makeup to LA-06 and MS-01, two Republican districts that Democrats picked up in special elections earlier this year by running moderate-to-conservative Democrats. While I will urge caution here because there are still important differences -- the Republican candidate is stronger than the Republican candidate in LA-06 and the Democrat is the urban candidate here (he was the rural candidate in MS-01) -- the fact that we have two relatively similar case studies of pre-Obama special elections to weigh against a post-Obama special election could allow us to draw some useful inferences here that we would not normally be able to draw from a special election result.
This should be a close race -- Democrats after all were winning open seats in the South with regularity before 2006/2008; see LA-05, LA-03, TN-04, etc. But if Republicans win the Louisiana district by more than a couple of points, combined with the Chambliss result, we will begin to have some good evidence that the anti-Republican backlash of the last few years has really begun to subside. Stay tuned.