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Democrats in Missouri took, to borrow a phrase from President Obama, a shellacking in the midterm battle. But the fight is just beginning today, not ending. According to Roll Call, the 2012 political scene in Missouri will “feature a battle royal” when the GOP leads a no-holds barred assault on Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat.

McCaskill has arguably been trying to position herself for this fight for the last couple of years. Her strategy has been to inch and wiggle her way rightwards; last year she officially identified herself with a centrist Senate group led by Evan Bayh, co-chair of Third Way. The question is whether or not the message she takes from this election will reinforce her efforts to straddle the partisan fence. The evidence that politicians who disrespect their base court disaster is there if she is interested in looking (and it is certainly a lesson that Republicans understand very well).

Robin Carnahan tried to follow McCaskill’s lead and embodied the conventional wisdom about how purple state Democrats should present themselves. She mouthed the “fiscally responsible” cliches about deficits and stimulus, and even committed the heresy of standing up for the wasteful Bush tax giveaways for the wealthy. Guess what Carnahan is today – a loser.

Anti-abortion, anti-cap-and-trade, kill-Obamacare, you name it – none of it helped Ike Skelton, even against an especially vapid Tea Party automaton.

Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas was the very model of a corporate, centrist, Republican-lite Democrat, and, although she just barely managed to beat off a progressive primary challenge (by pretending to change her colors on financial regulatory reform), the base never forgave her, the conservatives never even considered her, and this morning she’s toast.

The conservative, Democratic Blue Dog caucus lost 32 of their 54 members. Their dainty recoil from strong, down-and-dirty, Democratic principles didn’t seem to do them much good.

It is also true, of course, that we lost great progressives like Senator Rus Feingold and that some progressives went down in the House – Tom Perriello (D-VA) comes to mind. Others progressives, though, such as Raul Grijalva (D-NM), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jared Polis (D-CO) in the House,  Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) in the Senate won their races. Overall, to properly understand Democratic losses there are, as Ezra Klein notes, some essential questions that need to be considered:

When explaining what Democrats should’ve done differently, you also need to estimate how many seats would’ve been saved. Think Democrats shouldn’t have done health-care reform? How many seats did they lose for it? Think they didn’t talk enough about economic growth because they spent all their time on the safety net and global warming? All right, name the districts that would’ve stayed blue — and the legislation that would and wouldn’t have passed — if they’d followed your advice.

 

If we consider just one example of controversial policy, health care reform, vis-a-vis the election, last night’s exit polls should leave progressives smiling because we knew all along that much of the discontent with the reform package was that it did not go far enough:

Forty-eight percent support canceling the changes that the Obama administration and Congress made to the health care system. Thirty-one percent say they want the new health care law expanded, and just 16 percent say they want to leave the laws as is.

From this perspective, it’s not surprising that most of the Democrats who voted against the Affordable Care Act lost last night.

Nevertheless, McCaskill’s buddy, Third Way Co-Chair, Evan Bayh, is arguing today that the lesson we need to take from this election is that:

Democrats “over-interpreted” their mandate, claiming that the country did not want a progressive agenda, citing data that says that a plurality of Americans defined themselves as “moderate” in 2008 exit polls. He complains that Democrats went too far in pursuing their health care plan and that they catered far too much to their “most zealous supporters” in “trying to allow gays in the military, change our immigration system, and repeal the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.

Bayh makes these claims even though, as ThinkProgress notes, recent polling data indicate strong support for all those positions. Perhaps, when combined with the exit polls and election results above, these facts might explain the much vaunted “enthusiasm gap” and point to disillusionment with timid, and/or corporate Democrats, which suggests, in turn, that if McCaskill decides to continue on the Third Way, she may be doing it on her lonesome come election time in 2012.

After all, if Missourians are inclined to vote for Republicans, they have more than enough of the real thing. Nor should McCaskill take comfort in the thought of those so-called moderates in the center. These, after all,  are the folks who in the absence of a compelling political message –  something centrists don’t do well – can be had for the price of a dishonest, sensational political ad, of which we will get more than our fill come 2012 if election finance regulation does not change.

Update:  More evidence via Chris Bowers at DailyKos:

Due to extensive losses by conservative and moderate Democrats, another shift in power occurred in the House last night besides Republicans taking the majority. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has replaced the Blue Dogs and the New Democrats as the plurality ideological caucus among House Democrats. For the first time ever, the CPC is larger than Blue Dogs and New Dems combined.