It has been a quiet time in politics lately. Other than the Sequester, hardly the stuff of high political romance, there has been a seeming dearth of political news since the climax of the 2012 Election cycle. Of course, such a thing is hard to measure, because there is always going to be some news stories about confirmation hearings and the like, but I think it is safe to say that we are in somewhat of a refractory period where the two major political parties, and the electorate, are trying to figure out what happens next.
And what does happen next? The two populist movements that have swept across the nation, in 2010 and 2011, the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have pretty much exhausted themselves. The Democratic Party is wondering how it can keep its big tent, and the Republican Party is wondering how far populism can get it. There are a number of ways the story can be sliced and diced, but none of them really matter until the primaries for the 2014 electoral season come about.
The special election that was called in Illinois 2nd Congressional District is about as far from telling us something about the larger shape of American politics as it is possible to be. A special election in a suburban swing district might tell us something, although not much. But Illinois' 2nd Congressional District includes large parts of Chicago and Cook County, as well as suburban Chicago. It is heavily African-American and politically very liberal, and is probably one of the most safe districts for Democrats. It was previously occupied by Jesse Jackson, Jr., until criminal misconduct and mental illness made him resign his seat. When Robin Kelly won the primary, she was considered a shoo-in for the general election. And indeed, that was the result tonight: she won the seat with 71% of the vote to 22% for her opponent, a reformed criminal and evangelical Christian named Paul McKinley. Both candidates were African-American. Although there was one national issue that played a role in the campaign, that of gun control, with Robin Kelly heavily supported by money from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, such considerations take second place to the fact that the election was about the fact that a Democratic candidate would have to do something drastically politically stupid to lose in this district.
So while some of us are waiting for the grand drama of American politics to rouse themselves from their intermission, this first election is hardly the place to start spinning narratives. Perhaps sometime later in the year, with ballot measures and special elections and New Jersey and Virgina holding gubernatorial elections, we will get a hint of what is to come. But this special election tells us almost nothing.