The baby went limb-hopping with his guirrel friend yesterday. Apparently it went well, as she agreed to try surfing in the BPI hot tub faculty lounge squirrel bath later this week. He came home chittering with delight and began running victory laps around the tree. He even high-foured my garden gnome.

Democrats are also taking victory laps this morning, after Kathy Hochul’s victory in yesterday’s special election for New York’s 26th Congressional District. That had long been a reliably Republican district, save for two years after 2006. Less than a month ago – two weeks after the House passed a GOP budget with a plan to replace Medicare with vouchers for private insurance – polls showed Republican Jane Corwin leading the race.

But Hochul’s campaign made Medicare the central issue. Corwin initially embraced the GOP plan, and the more voters learned about it, the less they liked it. Corwin’s numbers stayed flat even after she walked back from the Medicare privatization plan, while voters who originally preferred Tea Party candidate Jack Davis began moving to Hochul. The shift held, and last night the Associated Press declared Hochul the winner. While Corwin has requested a recount, with a margin of almost 4700 votes Hochul’s victory looks solid.

Even Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC, who spent almost $700,000 on the race, see this as “a wake-up call” for the GOP. According to spokesman Jonathan Collegio:

Republican Jane Corwin gave it her all in a very tough special election today. The debate over whether Medicare mattered more than a third-party candidate who split the Republican vote is mostly a partisan Rorschach Test. What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010. It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year.

This is one of the few times I hope Collegio is correct. Democrats are justifiably celebrating, but we should also remember that Democrats won 8 of 9 special elections between 2008 and 2010. Those wins didn’t help last November, and even with Hochul’s victory the Democrats still hold five fewer New York congressional seats than in 2009.

Republicans are obtuse about policy, as the House budget vote shows. But they do understand electoral politics. In 2012 they will try to avoid three-way races by bringing Tea Party candidates under the GOP banner or maneuvering to shut them out altogether. They’ll also settle on a party line about the House budget vote, most likely embracing it in the abstract while stepping away from details. Expect more Republicans to say they never wanted to privatize Medicare, and say they voted for the House plan only to set down a starting point for negotiations with the Senate and White House. And with Citizens United allowing unlimited third-party messaging, expect GOP supporters to spend a lot of money pushing that message.

So take a quick victory lap, Democrats. High-five my garden gnome on the way by.

Then get back to work.

Good day and good nuts.