What a difference a few years can make.
In the 2010 midterms, Republicans had all the momentum, using a groundswell of anger over ObamaCare and Democratic rule to win huge gains at both the state and federal levels. Yet as Tuesday's elections showed, the political winds have since shifted in favor of Democrats, putting the party in an enviable position ahead of the next midterm elections in 2014 — and beyond.
All three of the marquee races bore at least good news for Democrats. In two, Democratic candidates emerged triumphant, while in the other, a Republican victory nevertheless offered some reason for Democrats to feel optimistic moving forward.
In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe eked out a victory over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) to win the state's gubernatorial election — even though a plurality of voters didn't like McAuliffe personally. Cuccinelli actually fared better than polls had predicted, but in the end, McAuliffe still overcame his own terrible image to win — in no small part because Cuccinelli was too conservative for many voters in a state that is starting to tilt blue.
Cuccinelli was a vocal opponent of gay rights, and proudly defended the state's unconstitutional anti-sodomy law. His positions on abortion and other women's health issues also hurt him, with McAuliffe beating Cuccinelli handily with women voters, particularly single women. That should be a big area of concern for the GOP.
Virginia and its 13 electoral votes went to Obama in the last two elections, the first time they had gone to a Democrat in four decades. Democrats would love to see the state trend even more in their favor going forward, something McAuliffe's narrow victory may foreshadow.
Meanwhile, New York City voters elected their first Democratic mayor in a generation, propelling Bill de Blasio to office with a landslide. A proud progressive — critics have accused him of being a communist — de Blasio is arguably the city's most liberal mayor in a half century.
Technically speaking, de Blasio's election alone is a major victory since it returned the nation's largest city to Democratic hands, even if the city's voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. But more than that, in winning so handily, de Blasio could usher in a wave of Democrats unafraid of embracing the once-dreaded L word — "liberal."
While it has long been a "totem of faith in some liberal-progressive circles that the key to lifting up the lower ranks lies in downplaying social and economic conflicts, cozying up to business interests, and tackling inequality covertly," wrote the New Yorker's John Cassidy, de Blasio has "challenged this formula, and turned himself into the standard-bearer for what some see as a new era of urban populism."
Then there's the big gubernatorial election in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie steamrolled his way to a second term. Obviously, Democrats would have preferred to not lose that race. Yet the way Christie cruised to re-election should give them some reason to be encouraged about the national political climate going forward.
While Christie maintains that he governed as a conservative, his election is not likely to cause Democrats to worry that New Jersey or other blue states are trending red. Notably, he dropped a legal challenge that would have kept gay couples in the Garden State from getting hitched. Even though he personally opposes gay marriage, it's basically a move a Democratic governor would have made, and it's further evidence that a key Democratic priority is going mainstream in a big way.
Also, though Christie is quick to point to his conservative track record on fiscal issues, the defining issue of his governorship involved teaming up with President Obama and Democrats to harass Republicans in Congress to approve aid relief for Hurricane Sandy, which a majority of Republicans in the House opposed without accompanying spending cuts. Indeed, Christie has made it a point to distance himself from his colleagues in Washington, D.C., vocally complaining that the government shutdown was a bad idea.
And Christie surprised political observers when he suddenly announced last month that he would consider allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates in New Jersey. Immigration reform is, of course, at the top of the Democratic wish list; according to one exit poll, Christie won 48 percent of New Jersey's Latino vote.
Now, the good news for Dems does come with some caveats.
In Virginia, McAuliffe barely won. His narrow margin of victory will surely be held up by conservatives as a sign of Democratic weakness, especially with regard to ObamaCare. And Cuccinelli was a terrible candidate made more unlikable by the government shutdown, so McAuliffe's victory wasn't that impressive, particularly given the fact that he heavily outspent his opponent.
New York City should absolutely, given its demographics, have elected a Democrat in a landslide regardless of how liberal said candidate was.
And Christie was governing a deep blue state, meaning his triumph could alternately be seen as a path to victory for Republicans in national elections. "Today's 'New Republican' might not look very different from Chris Christie," wrote The New Republic's Nate Cohn. "He or she would preserve the core elements of the Republican agenda, but might retreat on a few symbolic but ultimately incidental issues — like immigration reform."
Still, Democrats had a pretty good night overall on Tuesday. They won a couple of big races, and watched a Republican governor coast to re-election by hewing toward the middle and conceding major Democratic positions. Not bad.