ELECTION ’09 – U.S. HOUSE RACES…. Now that we’ve talked about yesterday’s gubernatorial races, let’s review the U.S. House special elections.

Going into yesterday, it’d been a good year for Democrats in special elections, winning three races — New York’s 20th, Illinois’s 5th, and California’s 32nd. Yesterday, Dems made it five for five.

If California’s 10th, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D), running a progressive campaign, defeated Republican David Harmer by double digits, 53% to 42.7%.

And in New York’s 23rd, in the race that captured extensive national attention, Democrat Bill Owens scored a surprising win, beating Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman, 49.3% to 45.2%, with nearly all of the votes counted.

While it’s a mistake to characterize either of these House races as bellwethers, the New York defeat not only gave Democrats something to be happy about on an otherwise disappointing Election Day — Owens will be the first Dem to represent this area since the 19th century — it was also a setback for the right-wing activists and leaders who’d invested so heavily in this special election.

Indeed, the far right had a plan. Activists and their allies would drive the moderate Republican away and rally behind the right-wing candidate. They would then take this model on the road, making NY-23 a model for competitive contests elsewhere. Of course, the strategy looks less impressive when the Democrat wins.

I found the RedState post on the results especially interesting. Erick Erickson called Hoffman’s defeat “a huge win for conservatives.”

First, the GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives…. [W]e have demonstrated to the GOP that it must not take conservatives for granted. The GOP spent $900,000.00 on a Republican who dropped out and endorsed the Democrat. Were we to combine Scozzafava and Hoffman’s votes, Hoffman would have won. […]

The GOP had better pay attention. For all intents and purposes, NY-23 is a trial run for Florida. And in Florida, the conservative candidate is operating inside the GOP. If John Cornyn and the NRSC do not want to see Florida go the way of NY-23, they better stand down.

So, they can lose if Republicans nominate a moderate (and the base revolts), or they can lose if Republicans nominate a hard-line conservative (and the mainstream revolts).

I suspect Democrats like this plan.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.