Champions of losing parties and their pundit pals are always quick to claim that special elections for open US House seats don’t matter. That’s what Republican operatives and conservative talk radio hosts are doing today, as they try to explain away Tuesday’s pick-up by the Democrat Stephanie Herseth of a previously Republican-held seat in South Dakota. Republicans are claiming that their candidate got a late start, that Herseth had better name recognition and, above all, that this was a local race in which no one could possibly find signals regarding national trends.

They are, of course, wrong.

Special elections results, especially when they follow upon one another and begin to form patterns, mean a great deal in American politics. In the last two election cycles where Democratic challengers defeated Republican Presidents, those wins were preceded by patterns of Democratic wins in special elections for House seats vacated by Republicans. Before the 1976 presidential election, Democrats swept a series of special elections in traditionally Republican districts–even winning the Michigan House seat vacated by Gerald Ford when he accepted the vice presidency in Richard Nixon’s collapsing Administration. In 1976, after assuming the presidency, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Similarly, before the 1992 election, President George Herbert Walker Bush was embarrassed when his Republican party lost special elections for seats it had held. Of particular significance was the June 4, 1991, election of Democrat John Olver to the western Massachusetts seat vacated by Republican Representative Silvio O. Conte, a close Bush ally.

Special elections for House seats have always been a big deal for savvy strategists in both parties, precisely because they know that such elections can tell us a great deal about the political moment. Early in 1985, Republicans were riding high after Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election win in 1984. A Democratic House seat in Texas came open and the GOP made a major push to win it, seeking to signal that Democrats could no longer win competitive seats in the south. The party’s top operative, Lee Atwater, was dispatched to run the race of the Republican candidate, and it was no secret that the Reagan White House hoped a win in the Texas special election would cause Southern Democratic House members to switch parties in droves. Unfortunately for Atwater, Democrat Jim Chapman won the seat. Atwater admitted that he had “the dry heaves for three days” after the loss.

Will Republicans be similarly upset following the South Dakota vote?

Not exactly. Republicans are no longer a party on the rise, looking for breakthrough wins. They have power, and it is easier to defend the high ground than to take it.

But there is no question that the South Dakota result represents bad news for the GOP. Coming not long before fall elections, when Republicans must defend the White House and narrow margins of control in the House and Senate, a pair of special-election wins for Democrats running in traditionally Republican House districts will set off alarm bells within the headquarters of the Republican National Committee.

But while Democrats were celebrating Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, it is important to remember that the South Dakota result is not a guarantee of Democratic destiny. It is merely a indication of what might come to pass if Democrats get their act together this fall.

For Democrats and Republicans, however, such signals matter.

During the contest that preceded Herseth’s election by a 51-49 margin over Republican Larry Diedrich in Tuesday’s statewide voting, the Democratic and Republican Congressional campaign committees poured more that $2 million into television advertising that targeted fewer than 300,000 South Dakota voters. Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush swept into the Plains state to campaign for Diedrich. And, after Herseth won, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was declaring early Wednesday morning that “Stephanie Herseth’s win to tonight sends a clear message to President Bush and Congressional Republicans: Americans are ready for change.”

Allowing for predictable hyperbole, Pelosi is hitting closer to the mark than the Republicans who claim this one election has no meaning. The Democrats do, indeed, seem to be on something of a roll in special elections for the House this year.

Between 1991 and 2003, Democrats failed to win a single special election for a House seat vacated by a Republican.

In 2004, Democrats have won two such seats: First in the rural 6th District of Kentucky, where former state Attorney General Ben Chandler secured a lopsided special election victory in February, and now in South Dakota with Herseth.

For all the protests from Republicans about how the South Dakota race was unique, it is difficult to imagine that if President Bush were riding high in the polls and public confidence in the stewardship of Republican House and Senate leaders were equally high Herseth could have prevailed. South Dakota knows how to vote for Democrats–the state sends two Democratic senators to Washington–but the House seat Herseth won had been safely in Republican hands for years. Republican Rep. John Thune regularly won the seat with as much as 75 percent of the vote until he gave it up in 2002. Former Governor Bill Janklow then won the seat with a solid margin over Herseth. (Janklow’s involvement in a deadly driving accident cut his Congressional career short, provoking the special election.)

To get a sense of how much of a breakthrough Herseth’s win represents for South Dakota Democrats, remember this: The party now controls the state’s entire Congressional delegation for the first time since 1937, when the popular programs of Frankin Roosevelt’s New Deal helped Democrats to break the historic Republican hold on the rural states of the upper Midwest.

It has been a very long time since Democrats were on the rise in rural America, in large part because the party has abandoned the economic populist, pro-small farmer themes that were traditionally its greatest strength.

Herseth’s homey campaign embraced populist economic messages about the need to protect family farms and revitalize rural America. After she lost the 2002 race, Herseth went to work with the South Dakota Farmers Union, the local affiliate of the progressive National Farmers Union, and her campaign this year reflected an understanding of the issues that most concern rural America. She criticized free-trade agreements that have harmed the interests of farmers and rural communities and she strongly supported Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) legislation that protects the interests of US farmers. In addition, Herseth attacked the Bush Administration’s assaults on Medicare and the President’s promotion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and for corporations that ship jobs overseas.

Is there a recipe here for Democrats as they seek to win the dozen seats they need to retake control of the House? Perhaps.

Referring to those 2000 presidential election maps that showed states won by George Bush colored red, Representative Bob Matsui, the Californian who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now says that, “Democrats can win in red states. Democrats can win in rural districts that have traditionally been in the hands of Republicans.”

Matsui is getting to the point that matters. With Bush in trouble, his coattails are going to be far more slippery than they were in 2000 and 2002, even in states where he is still likely to beat Democrat John Kerry. That creates an opening for Democrats in rural areas that the party has neglected over the past decade. But it is just an opening; after years of focusing far too much attention on suburban districts, the Democratic party has lost touch with rural America. Candidates such as Herseth and Chandler, both of whom come from prominent Democratic families with deep roots in their states, can make up for the party’s failings. But not every rural district will have a Herseth or a Chandler in the running. That means that the Democratic Party must change if it wants to capitalize on the opportunity that the 2004 election season seems to have handed it.

Democrats need to develop a serious rural strategy, which echoes National Farmers Union stances on trade and farm policy and promises a measure of revitalization for regions that have been in decline sometimes for decades. If they do so, they could find that the dozen seats they need to retake the House are not located in the suburbs but in rural America.