Last night was a grand defeat for George W. Bush–and the shrinking Terminator out in California. Let’s celebrate Democrats winning governorships in New Jersey and Virginia–an especially heavy loss for Bush, who made a last-minute campaign stop to prop up the slash-and-smear campaign of GOP candidate Kilgore. But even while celebrating, take a moment to consider that every election cycle brings news of record-breaking, stratospheric campaign spending.

This year is no different. The mudbath–better known as the NJ Governor’s race–was the most expensive in the state’s history. By the time, the raw and negative ads stopped running, Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester had spent some $72 million. In our own city, Mayor Bloomberg pumped roughly $70 million of his own money into beating his weak and decent Democratic opponent Freddy Ferrer. (Anyone reading this blog is welcome to calculate how much was spent per NYC voter.) The real winner in these races isn’t the voter subjected to hundreds of ugly, negative campaign ads; it’s the local TV stations raking in the dough.

So, is it time to retreat into cynicism about our money-drenched electoral system? As I’ve written about in this space, the country has seen some “sweet victories” in these last few years when it comes to “clean money” reforms, particularly in Arizona and Maine and, more recently in our own tri-state region–in Connecticut. There’s also the long view, shared with me on election night by Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, an invaluable organization committed to ending the corruption of our system. There’s no question that this will be a long and winding fight. But read on for some reflections, a measure of hope, and some good analysis from Nyhart:

** In our public financing message study last year (done jointly with Common Cause), we uncovered an incredible hunger for a government and politicians that people could count on to put them first–elected officials who would be accountable to them and keep their promises. Now, that may sound obvious, but the focus group consensus we found stretched from low-income African Americans in Bridgeport, CT to upscale conservative GOP women in Orange County–and it all reflected a sense that this is NOT the case now–that their elected officials serve some other set of interests. Getting people to support reform was tied to them viewing reform as an antidote to this condition.

** The flip side of this is that there is a tremendous upside for an alternative politics that’s about ordinary people and not about politics as usual. Given the extraordinarily high ranking of corruption in polling data these days (see USA Today’s poll–below–from October 26) and the big “wrong direction” numbers out there, a believable “outsider” candidacy (Dean ’04 or McCain ’00) might well do better in the next presidential election than in the past.

** The Democrats in DC don’t come across as change agents (see last week’s Democracy Corps poll) and systemic reformers haven’t yet forced their issues into the candidate debate. But the public’s increasing concern about corruption and the powerful hunger for better politics will push political actors further in these directions than in the past.

** It is, more than ever before, a time for reformers to be bold in their demands and to think outside the Beltway, as opposed to thinking about what can pass within the confines of today’s Bush/Frist/Blunt-DeLay configuration.

** Back to the increasing $$$ in candidate races question – these are outliers, but still reflect a trend. From a policy perspective, full public financing (with ME-AZ matching funds for overspending privately-funded candidates) deals with these issues in almost all races and the Vermont case going to the Supreme Court case is all the more important with a campaign-finance reform bill as a backdrop. But the larger significance of these well-publicized races is that they push public outrage about politics further towards reform, as much as the corruption stories.

Well, it’s a start…Making these issues a pragmatic cornerstone of a new democratic politics is a formidable task–but a critical one to reclaiming our democracy. And we can fortunately count on Public Campaign to help lead the way.