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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Political professionals in both parties are digging into yesterday's election results. They're trying to figure out what the numbers might mean come November for the midterm elections.

As NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, voters sent a mixed message. It's still a terrible year to be an incumbent, but maybe not as bad for Democrats as they'd thought.

MARA LIASSON: Today, the panic level among Democrats is down just a notch. Sure, the incumbent backed by President Obama lost his Senate primary in Pennsylvania and the incumbent Democratic senator in Arkansas was forced into a runoff, but in the only general election last night where a Democrat and a Republican faced off, the Democrat won.

NORRIS: This is the kind of seat Republicans need to win if they're going to pick up 40 seats in November.

LIASSON: That's former Republican Congressman Tom Davis, who used to run his party's House campaign committee. Davis, like many others, looked to yesterday's special election in Pennsylvania's 12th District as a bellwether for November.

NORRIS: That's a district McCain carried. This was a blue-collar seat, doesn't have a lot of minorities in it. It's tailor-made for Republican pickup, and Republicans didn't win.

LIASSON: The Republican, Tim Burns, ran on a national platform. He held Tea Party rallies and attacked the Obama-Pelosi agenda. The Democrat, Mark Critz, focused on local issues, and that's the right strategy, says Democratic Congressman Chris van Hollen, who's the head of his party's campaign committee.

NORRIS: The Republicans test-drove their November strategy in this special election and it crashed miserably. To the extent that they said there are going to be this huge wave of Republican wins, it certainly put a dent in their claims.

LIASSON: And that raises the question that a lot of people have been asking this year: Is this 1994 all over again, or not?

Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who's in charge of recruiting Republican House candidates, thinks this year is a lot like other wave elections that changed party control of Congress.

NORRIS: I think this is a national campaign year much like '94 and 2006. If you look at the intensity, you look at the generic polling, Republicans are in a stronger position today than where they were at this time in '94.

LIASSON: There's no doubt Republican voters are more energized this year, and in what McCarthy calls the generic polling, voters are split between wanting a Republican or a Democratic congressman. That's not a good sign for the majority Democrats. But there's something else that's very different than '94, says Democratic strategist Geoff Garin.

NORRIS: In 1994, when Democrats were last in this position, they really did not engage the race until it was too late, and there was a lot of whistling past the graveyard. There's no Democrat anywhere in America who takes this election lightly.

LIASSON: Former Democratic Congressman Martin Frost says Democrats have to do something that's very hard to do for a party holding all three branches of government: make the election into a choice between individual candidates instead of a referendum on Democratic policies. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Democrats control only the executive and legislative branches. The third branch, the judicial system, is appointed and not elected and is not controlled by either political party.]

NORRIS: The election is very much up for grabs. The Democrats just need to keep running good campaigns, hope that the economy turns better and maybe the losses won't be nearly as great as the press thinks they're going to be.

LIASSON: Not as bad as they could have been - that's the best outcome Democrats can hope for this year. And after last night, they may have some reason to hope. Pennsylvania 12 was the third special election in a swing district that Democrats won. That makes Republican Tom Davis wonder if this will be a wave election like '94 or something else.

NORRIS: There's a lot of dissatisfaction with Washington. The president's numbers are way down. The question is what form is it going to take on Election Day. And it may be instead of a hurricane, that this is one of these tornadoes that comes around and hits here and then skips a couple of towns and lets down somewhere else. In the race in Pennsylvania, the Democrat was pro-gun. He was pro-life. He said he'd vote against health care. Democrats that can adopt to their surroundings, maybe they can survive.

LIASSON: There will be other elections later this month with their own clues about whether the midterms will look more like a tornado or a tsunami.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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