Election analysis is a dark art and I'm not an expert, but here's a shot:
1. Was it a victory for the liberal wing of the Democratic party? Well, no. The exit polls are united on the fact that disgust with President Bush and the Iraq war was the dominant issue. The Democrats that took Republican seats tended to be from the social conservative side of the party, witness my own new congressman or the former sheriffs and football quarterbacks now populating the Democratic side of the House.
2. Was it a victory for the Democrats? Huge. And bigger than is typical in a midterm election.The New York Times this morning emphasizes that control of the House and the Senate is overshadowing equally significant gains in state legislative races, even in the South.
3. What do the ballot measures tell us? Bans on gay marriage pass in seven states (but one fails in Arizona, and almost fails in South Dakota); a ban on affirmative action passes in Michigan despite the opposition of *both* the Democrats and the Republicans, and the Michigan Catholic Conference, and the University of Michigan etc. (This has received surprisingly little play in the press.) Again, the general tenor is socially conservative.
4. What else do they tell us? The vote against the South Dakota abortion law -- which allowed abortions only if the life of the mother was at risk -- is significant, especially in a conservative state where Catholic bishops and priests had loudly endorsed it with homilies and prayer meetings. A ballot measure that banned abortions with exceptions for rape and incest victims might well have passed, as pro-life forces knew from the get-go, but it's striking that the more radical measure became the focus of debate. After massive financial support from the St. Louis archdiocese and from the pulpit, the campaign to stop stem cell research in Missouri also failed, although just barely. (And stem cell opponents were outspent by a few wealthy supporters.) The exit polls suggest Missouri Catholics voted against stem cell research, but only 55-45.
5. What else do they tell us? Efforts to raise the minimum wage pass in six states, including Nevada and Colorado, by large margins.
Verdict: a victory for socially conservative Democrats, and Democrats generally, and a rebuke (perhaps) for Catholic leaders intervening with heated rhetoric on hotly contested sexual ethics issues. (Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, during the stem cell debate, cheerfully compared it to the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when Christians praying the rosary defeated the "seemingly invincible" Turks "against all reasonable predictions.")
But the main social policy story, I suspect, viewed ten years out, will not be sexual ethics but a renewed focus on economic inequality (which is of course an undercurrent in the debate over affirmative action). If the Democrats are shrewd -- admittedly an open question -- they will tap into the groundswell of enthusiasm evident in the exit polls for increases in the minimum wage, checks on corporate salaries (Barry Diller pulled down $295 million last year) and anger about the profits of the pharmaceutical companies.