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The center holds

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In the end, the polls were right. In the presidential race, analyses done by a number of independent political watchdogs predicted a very tight popular vote race but a comfortable electoral vote win for Barack Obama; those polls proved to be very accurate.

And in the Bill Owens/Matt Doheny race, the final poll showed a tight race with a likely win for the incumbent. And that, too, was correct.

But the polls are only statistical tools. What matters is the voters. And what they said spoke volumes more than any statistical analysis can ever say.

Nationally, it turned out to be voters from the center who drove the election results. What those centrists saw was the possible end result of turning the country over to ideological purists, especially those on the right. The prospect of actually handing power to ultra-conservatives and tea party activists was obviously not something the centrists could stomach.

And while Mitt Romney, over the course of the campaign, softened and drove to the middle his political philosophy, others in the Republican Party did no such thing. In both Indiana and Missouri, tea party Senate candidates with whacko ideas on social policy handed victory to their more middle-of-the-road Democratic opponents; those victories were key to keeping Democratic control of the Senate. In Maine, voters repudiated both the left and the right, electing independent former Gov. Angus King. And because of the way the national Republican organization savaged him during the campaign, pouring millions of dollars into a failed effort to defeat him, it is almost certain he will join the Senate’s Democratic Caucus.

The Democrats, Republican hyperbole not withstanding, have not fielded a liberal candidate for president since Michael Dukakis. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are firmly centrist politicians, as were Al Gore and John Kerry. This goes back 20 years, and half of those moderate Democrats served or will serve two terms. In the interim, George Bush, while conservative compared to some, was no right wing radical. Indeed, he started the economic bailout that Obama completed (and for which Obama was accused by some on the right fringe of being a “socialist”).

In the north country, Bill Owens succeeded John McHugh in Congress and neither of them strays far from the center of the political highway, McHugh gained a reputation as a man who could reach across the aisle, even to forming strong bonds with Democratic U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton. Owens, likewise, has frequently voted against the Democratic party line in the House, and prides himself on his ability to work the capitalist economic mantra to gain jobs.

And now that position has — finally — gained him an untainted-by-third-party-candidates victory over Matt Doheny. Owens won in a three way race twice, once against Dede Scozzafava and Doug Hoffman, once against Doheny and Hoffman. It appears the Republicans thought all they needed to do was unify the party to defeat Owens, but they were wrong. In a straight-up contest this time, Owens won again.

There is plenty here for the Republican Party to think about. Doheny preached the right-of-center party line: small government, unfettered capitalism, tax breaks will set us free. That philosophy didn’t catch fire in the north country, and it obviously didn’t catch fire across the nation.

Clearly, if the Republican Party wishes to be more competitive, it needs to reconsider positions it has taken that have strayed farther and farther from the center. Many people seem to understand that no matter how galling government can be, we need it. And no matter how much it can pinch to pay taxes, that is simply the cost of having roads and armies and police and schools and a modest social safety net and a clean environment and a hedge against unfettered greed in the corporate world. We all, deep down, want most or all of that.

And because we do, Barack Obama is returning to the White House, the U.S. Senate remains firmly in Democratic control and Bill Owens is keeping his seat in the House of Representatives. There is a lesson there, if anyone is listening.

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