Kent Bush: Bright lights, big names don't always sway votes
In politics, what really happened isn't nearly as important as deciding what it meant.
There were four prominent elections Tuesday across the country that were being used as a de facto referendum on President Barack Obama and the Democratic majority's young administration.
It was a split decision. But with both gubernatorial elections going to the GOP, the Republicans certainly have a right to claim victory - even if that victory was not complete.
New Jersey voters kicked Democrat Jon Corzine to the curb. That race got ugly, and a third-party candidate also muddied the waters. But Chris Christie was able to exploit economic conditions and high taxes to oust the incumbent.
In Virginia, Bob McDonnell won by 18 percent.
In two special Congressional races, the Democrats won. The victory in California was not surprising, but the upset came in the 23rd Congressional District in New York - a heavily Republican area that had never elected a Democrat.
This race was fraught with issues and rose to national prominence when the GOP noticed support dwindling.
Democrat Bill Owens was running against Conservative Republican Doug Hoffman and moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava.
The race was certainly the most interesting of the group. GOP Chairman Michael Steele endorsed Scozzafava in the race. But he was the only major name to do so.
Former John McCain running-mate Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and several other heavy hitters endorsed the more conservative Hoffman. The radio right also joined Hoffman's fight as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin all found a spot on the bandwagon.
So even though the race was only for one congressional seat out of 435, the stakes had been raised.
Another trump card was played when Scozzafava dropped out of the race Saturday and endorsed her Democratic opponent.
Owens won easily and dampened the celebration across the Republican Party and gave a black eye to all of the power brokers who couldn't deliver the seat to their conservative cohort.
On "Morning Joe" on MSNBC Wednesday morning, Steele was reveling in his party's gains and explaining the losses.
That's when pseudo-journalist Lawrence O'Donnell went on the attack.
O'Donnell - whose careers have included television writer and actor and Senate Finance Committee Chief of Staff before joining the circus as a political commentator - is known for his pointed questions.
"Don't you have a lot to apologize for to your party," O'Donnell asked Steele. "For losing the 23rd for the first time in history?"
It was like a football coach who lost a game 27-0 berating the victorious coach because his team had allowed an extra point to be blocked.
"I'll start by apologizing for taking a question from you in the first place," Steele quipped affably. "I won't apologize for anything. Last night was a great night for Republicans. A lot of people are going to pick at the bones of the 23rd. I hope you have fun and find some gristle to chew on."
Steele argued that no matter who won that election, the re-election bid begins immediately. He says he is confident the GOP will reclaim the seat in 2010.
O'Donnell argued that Steele and the rest of the right wing made the 23rd the biggest race in the nation and brought in heavy hitters that missed the mark.
Steele was quick to point out that the national committee did not choose the candidates for this race and the personalities involved were the biggest problem or the party in this race.
That race shows that there are no sure things. It also dispelled the idea that every 2010 election will be about the economy or the Obama administration. People won't vote out a Democrat just for being a Democrat. The Republicans better find candidates with something to offer.
The NY-23 race also demonstrated that bright lights and big names don't always sway voters. New Yorkers really didn't seem to care what was on the radio or what the governor of Minnesota or former governor of Alaska thought they should do.
Everyone knows it, but a famous quote from Tip O'Neill bears repeating. When O'Neill had lost a race because he spent too much time campaigning and ignored issues in his own backyard, his father gave him some sound advice.
"Let me tell you something I learned years ago. All politics is local," O'Neill's recalled his father telling him.
In elections, the candidates matter. Local issues and organizations matter.
The out of state bigwigs and radio and television talking heads are icing on the cake. But without a cake to spread it on, it all melts away - just like the race in NY-23.
Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta Gazette in Augusta, Kan. Contact him at email@example.com.