The Lessons of Election '09

And so the somewhat sordid tale of the 2009 election season -- our meager dose of political catnip in an off-year -- has drawn to a close, leaving Republicans and conservatives with a bit of a hangover and lingering questions of where to catch the bus. The sideshows taking place in Virginia, New Jersey, and an obscure, mountainous patch of upstate New York will now give way to the real battle of the 2010 midterms, which kick off in earnest today. But did we learn anything?

The easy headlines have already been picked off and pretty much wrote themselves. Republicans "pull two out of three!" The contingent of motivated activists who consider themselves the only true conservatives in America were pounding their chests, convinced that they had unwrapped the last of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. This must surely be the moment when they would seize the wheel of power and drive the godless RINOs and squishy moderates from the party as they march toward victory.

Really? Let’s start off our tour in the Empire State’s 23rd district. Thanks to a flood of out-of-state money and what many of the locals considered an embarrassing amount of national media attention, the Republican candidate was hounded out of the race for the sin of being too liberal. In her place, a disgruntled champion of the state's Conservative Party grabbed headlines across the nation, causing no shortage of ill will among national GOP leaders and potential presidential candidates in the process. And the result? The seat still wound up going to the Democrats, the party which had managed to avoid holding it since civil war veterans were voting. Before you begin feeling too badly, though, the loss doesn’t portend as much as you may think. The bad news is that, even had Hoffman prevailed, it wouldn’t have meant what you thought either.

People were busily painting this as some sort of a proxy battle between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. How embarrassing is it to lose to Joe Biden? But in reality, Hoffman’s national supporters forgot the rule of thumb when it comes to third-party candidates: they are there to spoil the chances of the favorite. Hoffman’s campaign was an aberration in that he so spoiled the dominant party’s candidate that she was driven from the field of battle, but he still wound up performing the normal function and handing the win to the opponent’s team.

New Jersey was, in some ways, an even stranger story. Chris Christie’s surprisingly comfortable margin of victory will clearly go down on paper as one more in the win column for the GOP. But careful observers are taking away a somewhat deeper message. First, they know that Jon Corzine should have never even gotten close to winning this one, and the only reason he did was the fractious nature of the New Jersey Republican Party and the obstinate tenacity of Chris Daggett. And what of the governor-elect himself? Is he a “real conservative” who will lead us out of the wishy-washy marsh of John McCain’s "Gang of 14" nightmare?