So in the only special election of 2007 that figured to be anywhere near close, Niki Tsongas has defeated Republican Jim Ogonowski by a margin of around 51%-45%. In a district that went for John Kerry by 17 points, in a seat where Marty Meehan regularly won with more than 60 percent of the vote, Democrats should be concerned.
Yes, Niki Tsongas was clearly not a great campaigner, but she has great name identification, in a solid Democratic district. Furthermore, special elections are frequently decided by the party organizations, which must turn out their voters. How much of an organizational edge did the Democrats have in a district that hasn't elected a Republican in nearly 40 years?
And with all that edge, Democrats managed a 6 point win.
This is a clear sign that the 2006 Democratic wave is gone. Chris Bowers at OpenLeft typifies the response from Democrats; he argues not to read too much into this:
As with the OH-02, much of the problem rests in the ossified local machine of the favored party nominating a weak candidate. Tsongas isn't as bad on the trial as Jean Schimdt, but she is close.But in November 2006, Democrats would have ridden an ossified machine and a bad candidate to a 20 or 30 point margin of victory. Today it yielded them only a 6 point win, even with appearances by Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy and other national Democratic leaders, against a candidate they heavily outspent.
Why is this so significant? Because Ogonowski ran a race against Congress, against illegal immigration, and against corruption. According to Democrats in Washington, he should have been defeated badly. After all, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid argue that Congress' low ratings are due to dissatisfaction with President Bush's war, and the American people are with them on the issues. Pelosi and Reid say that when people come out to vote, they'll vote with the Democrats -- whom they allegedly agree with on the issues.
That's not what happened today in the bluest state in the union. Why would anyone expect it to happen next November? Today's outcome shows that Congress' low approval ratings aren't just collateral damage from those of President Bush; Reid & Pelosi own those terrible ratings. Even in Masschusetts, the voters are telling them they're doing a terrible job. Are they likely to be more forgiving in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, New Mexico, or any of a host of other states with targeted races?
Judging by today's results, voters are likely to turn out ineffective incumbents in both parties to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the inability of Congress to move forward on health care reform, tax reform, national security priorities, and other matters. And it is the Democrats who will be fielding far more incumbents in GOP-leaning districts.
They'd better study this race.
Update: We can only hope that Rahm Emanuel is as nonplussed about this as Oliver Willis. Our job gets much easier if Democrats don't notice that something went seriously awry.