Conservatives who had skipped the 2008 race came back in droves this year, bringing an unprecedented amount of outside money for their side. This time, liberal outside groups sat on their wallets, unhappy with the Democratic leadership for not going further on "don't ask, don't tell," for dropping the public option during the healthcare debate, and for not moving quickly enough on cap-and-trade and comprehensive immigration reform. One of the biggest left-leaning PACs, MoveOn.org, for example, spent only $21 million, down from $38 million in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Union spending, which reached over $150 million this year, was mostly aimed at reminding the base to get out and vote. But other outside ads on the left focused on hot-button social issues in an attempt to whip up women's votes in the base, something challengers avoided in a year when most women were far more worried about making ends meet in their monthly budgets. In a tough economy, swing voters of all stripes care about jobs, taxes, and economic security. This year, for the first time, "reducing the deficit" joined "creating jobs" at the top of the Pew Research Center's polling on which priorities voters rated as most important. Abortion didn't even make the list.
Voters seemed more engaged than ever in this year's midterms. And despite some of the mud-slinging, this election saw a great debate about the direction of our country. A record number of women and minorities came forward to run as challengers, and the playing field for them was more level than it ever had been before. In the end, the floodgates of spending made more campaigns more competitive and resulted in more newcomers being elected than we've had in a generation. That's not a bad thing for our country at all.