Democrats keep talking about moral victories this election cycle. But to take back the Congress in 2006, they’ll need to convert symbolic wins into actual ones.

In a normal election cycle, Republicans would’ve handily defeated Paul Hackett in Ohio (who was narrowly defeated by Republican Jean Schmidt in a special election last August) and Francine Busby in California. Busby lost to Republican Brian Bilbray in a special election last night by 49 to 45 percent, in heavily Republican districts. But this is not a typical political year, and for Democrats to take back the House or the Senate, they must pick up seats in places like Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The results last night in San Diego’s 50th district prove the GOP’s resolve. Republicans are still better at winning elections than Democrats are. Democrats had two months to try and increase Busby’s total above the 44 percent she took in the crowded April primary, the same number John Kerry garnered in the conservative district. Those numbers barely moved, and turnout remained especially low.

Perhaps more disconcerting for Democrats, illegal immigration seemed to matter more than the “culture of corruption” message Busby hammered in Duke Cunningham’s former district.

In 2004, Democrats and progressives were convinced that they had a better turnout operation than Republicans did, and the country was as anti-Bush as they were. The country’s appetite for Republicans has certainly soured since then, but it’s way too early to begin calling Nancy Pelosi “Speaker,” as some Democrats are already doing.

A note of caution, after a long political night.