That sound you heard a little while ago? That was Democrats nationwide sighing in relief at Gov. Joe Manchin's victory in West Virginia, where he defeated Republican John Raese in a special election for Senate.
Manchin's victory is good news for the Democrats for two reasons: it means that they are virtually certain to hold the Senate, and they can win in the most dire circumstances with the right candidate. The late Robert Byrd's seat was vulnerable once the Democrats had to defend it with a new candidate, since West Virginia is a culturally conservative state that has leaned increasingly toward the GOP in recent presidential elections. But while Democrats initially thought Manchin—an extremely popular Democrat, and a centrist as well—was a lock, businessman Raese gained ground on him and, in some polls, even led.
Had Manchin lost, it would have shown that even a strong Democratic candidate could not defeat an extreme and gaffe-prone Republican. (Raese, whose wife lives in a mansion in Florida, suggested that the federal minimum wage should be eliminated, and an ad attacking Manchin paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee backfired when Politico reported that the casting agency requested actors show up in "hicky" attire to portray West Virginians.) Manchin's successful strategy involved emphasizing his conservative positions on gun control and energy.
What remains to be seen is what sort of Democrat Manchin will be in Washington. While he's always been on the party's right edge, he tacked even farther right during the campaign, even suggesting he'd back repealing health-care reform. Democrats have his seat; now they just need to make sure they have his vote.