If the Democrats have been swept in the big three, no matter the lousy campaign of Creigh Deeds; the New Jersey trifecta of a miserable economy, high property taxes and the uncharismatic governor; and the long-standing Republican tilt of New Yorks 23rd district, the storyline will be that Barack Obama and the Democratic Party suffered a big rebuff, and that Republicans are back in the game big time.
In the short run, that would mean lots of energy for Republicans in Congress and lots of Pepto-Bismol for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Republicans will believe that their strategy of uniting to block any and all Obama or Democratic initiatives was a resounding success and will intensify their efforts to keep all their Members in line. At the same time, vulnerable House and Senate Democrats, looking toward next year, are going to be much more nervous, and that makes corralling votes on health care reform, climate change or financial regulation more difficult even as the need for party unity is greater than ever.
On the other hand, if Bill Owens (D) has prevailed in New York, after an embarrassing Republican divide, and Jon Corzine (D) has prevailed in New Jersey thanks in major part to an Independent candidate drawing votes from Republican Chris Christie, the prevailing storyline will be how Republican fratricide and conservative pugnacity blew a big chance for a party win. While that will not energize vulnerable freshman Democrats or skeptical Blue Dogs to stay with their party on tough votes, it will not add to their underlying nervousness and may make it easier for Reid, Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel to keep the troops in line.
Despite the big push by Democrats to get Owens over the top in New York, I am sure there are some Democratic strategists who would be secretly happy if Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party nominee, won. A Hoffman victory would mobilize many more arch-conservative candidates to take on moderate Republicans in primaries or by trying to get on the ballot on a third-party or independent line. Of course, few states are as amenable to such challenges as New York. But each challenge drains party resources and splits supporters. If I were heading up the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, I might be tempted to try to get some of my most ardent supporters to channel money to the Club for Growth to encourage more such challenges.
Nothing important has changed directly in Congress from Tuesday to Wednesday. But the indirect implications of these elections could be considerable, and very interesting for us Congress-watchers.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.