But Republicans were equally on edge. Throughout the primary season, a stunning number of the establishment's favored candidates went down to more conservative Tea Party favorites. Strategists on both sides identified different moments of conservative activism as the first real indication of the Tea Party's influence, from Charlie Crist
's dramatic exit from the Republican Party on April 30 to Rand Paul
's victory in Kentucky on May 18 to Sharron Angle
's win in Nevada on June 8 and Christine O'Donnell
's September 14 victory in Delaware.
Regardless of where it began, conservative activists sent a clear message to the Beltway crowd: They, not national party strategists, have taken over the GOP. In such a favorable year, those conservatives aren't likely to hurt Republicans too much, but the rise of the right should be a concern for a party that still has a terrible image among moderates and independents.
The Local Factors:
As Tip O'Neill
once said, all politics is local. That may not be entirely true in a nationalized election, but local factors certainly play a role. In some cases, those local factors have helped determine who will win and who will lose some of this year's hottest elections.
Debates long ago lost their place as make-or-break moments for a campaign, the victims of over-scripted candidates and moderators who care more about the latest tit-for-tat than substantive issues. But this year, at least two debates have the potential to change an outcome. Earlier this month, Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck
(R) said during a debate on NBC
that he thought homosexuality is a choice and compared it to alcoholism, becoming one of the few fiscal-centric Tea Party candidates to wade in to social issues. That could hurt him in a tight battle with Sen. Michael Bennet
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
(D) also stumbled in his debate, appearing lackluster in the only encounter he had with rival Angle. Reid didn't need to score a knockout blow, but he certainly needed to avoid one. The media virtually universally declared Angle the winner, and by no small margin.
While debates aren't that exciting, advertisements that reach a big percentage of an electorate can have a field-altering impact as well. Republicans admit that Gov. Joe Manchin
's (D) ad in which he executes cap and trade legislation
turned the race around for him by creating distance between the West Virginia Democrat and his Washington compatriots. Rep. Joe Sestak
(D-Pa.) wouldn't even have been the Democratic nominee in his state's Senate race if not for a brutally effective ad in which he used Sen. Arlen Specter
's (D) own words against him
Ads can work against a candidate, too. Just witness Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, whose poll numbers were evening out in the Bluegrass State until an over-the-top ad
that sought to raise questions about Rand Paul's religion. After running the ad, Conway's numbers have dropped in public and private polling, likely ending his chances of winning the seat. In neighboring West Virginia, a Republican ad may have made all the difference, in a bad way; some Democratic pollsters believe an NRSC ad that labeled West Virginians "hicky"
gave Manchin the opportunity to turn his campaign around.
The Long-Term Shift:
The stimulus bill gave Democrats an albatross. Brown's victory quantified their problems. But no single moment has redefined the political landscape like a January Supreme Court decision that has effectively allowed hundreds of millions of dollars to flow onto the airwaves with little regulation and virtually no disclosure.
The one thing Democrats and Republicans, campaign finance reformers and free speech advocates who oppose new rules can agree on is that the Citizens United v. FEC
decision has fundamentally altered the political landscape. Outside groups now will likely outspend national parties in television advertising, a stark example of the diffusion of political power from the comparatively staid ways of Washington to a new Wild West free-for-all.
As many strategists involved in the extracurricular activities have made clear, 2010 is just a warm-up for the 2012 presidential contest. Then again, next cycle, too, will have its own climate-altering moments.