Living in VA I can only offer the biased view of the elections just past as seen from a local standpoint. Yet the trends locally appear to be mirrored elsewhere in the US.
VA had been trending from 'Red' to 'Purple' since the mid-1990's as the population increases in the State shifted the voting patterns from rural and somewhat south towards Richmond northwards to Northern VA (NoVA) and the DC Metro area. This off-year election saw campaigning that offered a stark contrast from the way they had been run since the mid-1990's and those campaigning in the older mode of pure attack ads, with very little positive to say about themselves as candidates, lost yesterday. The winning candidates had ads were either purely positive about a candidate or ran with attack ads as half or so of the campaigns media buys.
As a side note on my viewing patterns, as they do skew what I see, the overwhelming majority of my time watching any television (approx. 3 hrs/day) concentrates on the History and Discovery channels, with a small portion of FNC added in. I can't speak to the other channels and their viewership amounts or media buys, but for those cable channels, particularly my majority viewing time, was dominated by the Republican party and I can remember seeing less than 5 total Democratic party ads over the last month, while on my main viewing channels that would be what I saw nightly for the Republicans.
The winning themes of the ads were: lower taxes, efficient government, and a strong personal story featuring military service either by the candidate or by family members. The McDonnell campaign did not stage any buys for 'response' ads to negative ads taken out by the Deeds campaign. Watching the 100% map last night saw VA that had very few 'Blue' districts in the Governor's race, and the State's color was 'Red'. Yet this is not the 'Red' of Social Conservatism, although a strong family presence for the McDonnell campaign was evident throughout the late campaign season. Words that were not heard were: abortion, 'family values', 'litmus test'. The Deeds campaign ran one of the worst campaigns State-wide that I have seen in my time in VA, dropping the rural background of the candidate and, instead, going for attack ads based on a 20 year old college paper done by McDonnell. That form of campaign worked well for Webb's Senate campaign, but flopped with a 20 point margin loss in 2009.
Down-ticket races run by Republicans (Bolling for Lt. Gov., Cuccinelli for Attorney General) both won with a mix of positive ads and attack ads, with the Bolling campaign nearly evenly split while the Cuccinelli campaign remained highly positive in its buys up to the last day or two. Their themes were similar to the McDonnell campaign, save that the negative buys tended to place themes that were difficult to shake: 'Washington Insider', 'weak on crime' and 'higher taxes'. Those negative themes bolstered by positive candidate buys, along with single response ads by all the candidates proved to be critical to those campaigns.
Local district campaigns also moved strongly into the pro-candidate positions on taxes, jobs and fiscally responsible government. In NoVA this became a sweep in even in Fairfax County that had been tending 'Blue' for over a decade. The Rust and Greason campaigns (Fairfax and Loudoun districts) had mixed mode campaigns that still favored positive themes over negative ones, with the Rust campaign side-stepping charges of not carrying through on previous campaign issues for State funding for autism by putting forward issues of VA financial problems requiring tough budget decisions. Here the balance between what would be 'nice' to do was pitted against fiscal realities during a downturn that started over two years ago in Fairfax. The Greason campaign buy had its initial message of attack politics evenly split with positive imagery of their candidate as a family man and veteran, both of which resonated with the Loudoun district he ran in. The negative attacks were echoes of those further up-ticket: 'opponents as outsiders or carpetbaggers', 'weak on crime', and fiscally irresponsible.
Overall the positive themes were those of fiscal responsibility and taxes needing to be lowered, along with positioning government so as to help the working class in suburban districts, plus messages of military service and strong family backing. The losing themes of digging up 'dirt' a decade or two old, balancing the budget with taxes and playing to the mid-1990's to 2008 campaign trends that emphasized negative campaigning lost. They lost heavily in VA Statewide and locally.
Some observations on other races
NJ - The Democratic Party Machine has run into extreme problems in the Garden State. From what little I've seen/read about the races there, they are a strongly set of concurring themes as seen in VA for the winning candidates: fiscal responsibility via lower taxes and less government, personal integrity, positive ads, and strong family backing for the candidates. Four or eight years ago a major shift in NJ from the Democratic Machine would have been inconceivable, and yet, even with huge investment from the party in its candidates, those media buys have not proven to be effective. Outspending your opponent is no longer a path to victory.
NY-23 - As I grew up in Western NY what I witnessed going on over this election cycle was what I had come to expect: an incompetent and clueless Republican party. Upstate NY is a different beast than downstate NY (NYC to Albany axis, but mostly NYC): the urban center of NYC and suburbs of Long Island and those suburbs stretching north are far more socially and fiscally liberal than rural, small town and suburban upstate NY. The Republican party in NY has been more closely aligned with the 'Rockefeller Republican' fiscally 'moderate' (ie. pay for everything with taxes) wing of the Republican party. While fiscal conservatives do pop up in NY State, they are the exception, not the rule. By not holding a primary for the NY-23 seat, the Republican party also played to its tone deafness towards their own party and placed someone who was highly irregular for that district into the election. Scozzafava's backing for the NY State equivalent of 'card check', winning the Margaret Sanger award, and being unable to realize that in a downturn these are not in tune with the district she was in caused the Conservative Party of NY to run Hoffman against her and the Democratic candidate Owens.
A month ago Hoffman was an unknown.
A month later he garnered nearly 46% of the final vote tally after Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed Owens.
In that month in-between the old GOP insider system broke down when Gingrich endorsed Scozzafava and both Fred Thompson and Sarah Palin endorsed Hoffman who ran on fiscal conservatism. Gingrich's image as a Washington Insider had already been seen on the 'global warming' ad with Nancy Pelosi, and none of his 'we need a seat at the table' rejoinders were coming off well when the answer that fiscal conservatives expected was: NO. By playing the Washington Insider game, Newt Gingrich demonstrated his own brand of DC-centric tone deafness and thinking that 'having a seat at the table' actually can get you what you want. The rejoinder by him that Scozzafava would follow the Republican line on 'key votes' went no where, and the endorsements by respected, fiscally conservative Republicans of Hoffman saw a major push on his candidacy that would cause Scozzafava to lose in a three-way race. That polling also showed that she split votes with Owens, thus leaving Hoffman the winner. She left the race so that Owens could garner her votes and win the election.
'Blue Dog' Democrats now are faced with a situation in which two key States for the Democratic party in the 2008 cycle have rejected the party on fiscal conservatism grounds. Districts which once trended 'Blue' in VA now trend 'Red' and similar is seen in NJ. This is not the advance of the Republican party, but the shift to candidates that address fiscal realities during an economic downturn, and who do not see more government, bigger government and more taxes as the way out of an economic crisis. Much to the consternation of social conservatives, the idea of a 'litmus test' has disappeared on the Republican landscape overnight. That brand of social conservatism from the 1980's to 2008 has just received a major blow as none of the issues that have been 'hot button' played any role in these races.
Contrarily social liberalism is not a path to victory, either, as none of the issues played up (at least in VA) gained any traction at all. Free spending big government is not something that will garner winning vote majorities. Nor will paying for those with higher taxes, fees, or any other scheme be something that can easily be shrugged off. Government largesse comes with a huge economic price tag that, while not seen immediately on the individual level, effects the overall economy.
Where that leaves social conservatism is in a 'live and let live' mode that doesn't like to have 'purity' of anything, yet understands the need for strong families and commitment to the Nation, not its government. Abortion will continue to play a role, no doubt, but it is no longer a topic that is ascending, but descending. Restrictions on abortion will continue to be a theme in Republican politics, but will only play in the fiscal area of: 'government shouldn't pay for it, it is your life and your responsibility'. That should be a rallying point, this idea of self-responsibility, but big government conservatives have demonstrated a tone deafness on this issue like no other. That leaves social conservatives unable to thematically address that self-responsibility for families, local affairs and moral behavior becomes an over-theme to campaigns, thus leaving candidates to find that for themselves. A 'take responsibility for yourself and don't look to government to get you out of your messes' is one that should resonate in the socially conservative realms, and yet it has not received an airing for decades.
That is because the message would have to adopt fiscally conservative values that endorse smaller government, lower taxes, a 'live and let live' attitude on many life styles, and not endorsing a government role in 'expanding' political correctness of the Left or Right.
'Blue Dog' Democrats are now seeing the beginnings of a flow towards what should be their home territory of fiscal conservatism, but they are also witnessing the break-up of Republican systems that have tried to enforce party unity from the top downwards. The Democtratic party has been doing that for decades, and the social and fiscal sands that castle is built on will not hold, as it did not hold in VA or NJ. To win in 2010 as a 'Blue Dog' requires adopting fiscally conservative themes and voting that way, while speaking out on those themes every time a microphone is in front of your face. If you talk about 'party unity' and 'having a seat at the table', you will soon find yourself in Newt Gingrich's Washington Insider Intensive Care Unit.
Liberal Democrats will be doing their damnedest to enforce 'party unity' and to 'keep on message', and not realize that their majority rests upon districts now flipping against them. Voting trends in 2009 will continue if there is still an economic downturn into mid-2010 and be reinforced by any major fiscal disaster by any State or in the Federal Government. Thus the following States, now facing huge budgetary problems heading towards insolvency, become key States to watch: CA, MI, MA, NY. CA, in particular, is seeing a melt-down unlike any other ever seen in the US as its taxes go ever upwards, its government size balloons and people, even the illegal aliens, run away from the State. MI also has extreme problems and even with Ford doing well, the high spending, high tax system of MI has destroyed Detroit and is about to suck the rest of the State down with it. MA has tried to give medical benefits to everyone, and now sees its system heading downwards. NY has been a high tax state since the Erie Canal proved a revenue boon, and has never gotten off the increased tax syndrome that came when the Canal died, and the anti-business stance of the putative Republican Bloomberg in NYC points to the woebegone state of the Republican party in NY. As NYC goes, the rest of the State must follow due to economics, and NYC is digging a hole in the river.
To survive this 'Blue Dog' Democrats are now in the position of either meaning what they say and breaking with the high tax, big government Liberal base, or seeing a landslide of epic proportions as the cost of such programs ripple throughout the Union. As Republicans are now foundering and seeing parts of their party shift away from the central portion of it, the Democrats now face this exact, same problem: 'party unity' is a loser at the local level. Voting for 'big ticket' items after this election is a strange form of political seppuku for 'Blue Dogs'.
What is interesting is that the Conservative Party in NY now has a moment in the limelight, and any astute party leader should push for a large registration drive over the winter, plus as many candidates as they can field upstate in hard hit regions economically. Shifting emphasis to fiscal conservatism that backs strong families and personal responsibility can resonate in NY State, when coupled with the message: 'we are being taxed into poverty'. Of course in NY that would be a good place for 'Blue Dogs', who vote their values of fiscal conservatism, to head towards. No one thinks the NY Democratic Party machine can be broken in NYC in any substantive way.
But it can be broken in Upstate NY.
With the Republican party leadership heading one way, and its State based organizations moving another (save in NY where it is notable by its tone deafness), any 'Blue Dog' can see that they have the exact, same problem in their party.
Does this mean a third party?
That depends on many factors, and this winter will see if the Tea Party movement is effective in its organizing efforts in multiple States and if the NY Conservative Party can find an independent voice from the Republican party. Meanwhile the Democrats in DC are now eyeing the fact that 2008 had personality trump policy, and that 2009 dramatically reversed that so that policy is now in the trump position. Votes do matter. Putting higher taxes and bigger government in place is no longer the default winning condition. And that, too, is a change from the last two decades and a much needed one.