It is certainly fair to search for signals in the results of off-year elections, and that goes double for off-year elections held at so volatile a moment as this. But not all elections are equal. Races for mayoralties and governorships tend to fit the “all politics are local” standard. But special elections for open Congressional seats, especially when they’re held on the eve of votes on critical issues like healthcare reform and banking regulation, are exactly the right places to spot trends relating to Washington debates and 2010 Congressional contests.

So what did we learn from the off-year elections? New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a good Democrat who was hurt badly by the economic downturn, which has rocked state governments across the country, lost by a relatively narrow margin to Republican Chris Christie. Corzine started the race with poll numbers so weak that Democrats spoke openly about replacing him as their nominee. It didn’t help that the governor made his millions on Wall Street; as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s surprisingly narrow win illustrated, it’s not a good year for wealthy, self-funded contenders. But Corzine battled his way back into contention, if not quite to victory, by highlighting support for healthcare reform and aligning with President Obama.

Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds, who ran away from reform and his party’s president, was beaten badly in a state where voters who provided Obama’s winning margin in 2008–particularly young people–stayed home in 2009. Deeds was the wrong candidate for governor, and Democrats should learn the lesson that running to the right depresses turnout among the new voters who have powered the party’s progress in recent years.

There is a human cost to losing governorships, particularly since Congress might allow states to opt out of implementing the public option on healthcare reform, which is critical to expanding access. There could also be a political cost, since redistricting fights will begin with the completion of the 2010 Census. With those factors in mind, the gubernatorial losses in states Obama won last year are all the more disappointing.

Equally disappointing was the repeal of Maine’s law allowing same-sex couples to marry. There was better news from Washington State, where a proposal to expand domestic partnership protections won. And Kalamazoo voted overwhelmingly to retain a law barring discrimination against gays and lesbians. Draconian proposals to limit the ability of state and local governments to raise revenues for needed programs lost in both Maine and Washington, suggesting that the antigovernment thrust of the “tea party” right is not resonating with voters who are given clear choices.

A similar message came from the two special Congressional elections, which provided Obama and the Democrats with the best news of the day. Indeed, for all the spin suggesting the November 3 elections were a setback for the president and his party, the fact is that they gained one House seat in New York and a more reliable and activist House ally in California. The New York contest was a high-profile one because of a GOP donnybrook that suggests the party that could not shoot straight in 2006 and 2008 continues to miss the target as the 2010 elections approach. Local Republicans tried to broaden the party’s base by nominating a social moderate who had worked well with organized labor; national conservatives, led by Sarah Palin, the tea-party crowd and the corporate-funded Club for Growth, swept in to back the candidate of New York’s Conservative Party, who hailed Fox News commentator Glenn Beck as his “mentor.” Undermined and frustrated, the GOP nominee suspended her campaign and backed Democrat Bill Owens. The right-wingers declared victory in their fight for “the soul of the party.” But on election night Owens won a seat that had been Republican since Ulysses S. Grant occupied the Oval Office.

The results from a special House election in California were even more encouraging. California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi is a veteran reformer and rabble-rouser who took on the insurance industry as his state’s elected insurance commissioner and promised during his campaign to “fight for a robust public option [and] continue to be a tireless advocate for single-payer healthcare.” His GOP opponent ran ads declaring, “This November, one race for Congress matters most. If [Garamendi] is elected, he will be a surefire vote for government-run healthcare.” Garamendi stuck to his guns and won with ease. He’ll be dramatically more progressive than his predecessor, Ellen Tauscher, who was allied with the Blue Dogs. And Garamendi’s experience with insurance issues will make him a valuable addition to the Democratic caucus at a critical point. That’s something to celebrate.