Today's question, of course, is twofold: Do Tuesday night's results give Republicans a mandate? And, if so, to do what?
If this is not a mandate election, the word has lost all meaning. This went so far beyond the "map election" Charlie Cook posited that it's still difficult to believe. The Republicans not only won decisively — they flipped the Senate before midnight Eastern Time, increased their hold on the House to levels not seen since the 1920s and even scored a net gain on governorships — they also ran up surprisingly big margins in the process.
It's one thing for Gov.-elect Greg Abbott (R) to crush Wendy Davis (D) in Texas and for Kansas to return to its red roots and reelect Gov. Sam Brownback. But it is no map election when Republicans win governor's mansions in Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine and Illinois.
In Senate races, everything that could break bad for the Democrats did — Republicans Cory GardnerCory GardnerSchumer: GOP plan to make Warren the face of Dems 'not going to work' A guide to the committees: Senate Cheney to intro Pence at Jewish GOP event MORE in Colorado, Tom CottonTom CottonSanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress Protesters crash McConnell's speech 7-year-old to Cotton: Don't let Trump cut PBS Kids just to fund a wall MORE in Arkansas, Thom TillisThom R. TillisCornyn: Border wall 'makes absolutely no sense' in some areas Ryan on border: ‘We will get this done’ Ryan tours Mexican border on horseback MORE in North Carolina and David Perdue in Georgia all won tough races. Heck, Ed Gillespie (R) almost pulled off the Senate upset of the night in Virginia.
The Republicans not only won, they covered the spread. Sens.-elect Gardner, Cotton, Perdue, Joni Ernst in Iowa; Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin; Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress McConnell: Trump's speech should be 'tweet free' Protesters crash McConnell's speech MORE in Kentucky — the new Senate Majority Leader — and others not only won but ran up surprisingly strong margins.
It's a mandate election, and it's a chance to transfer success from the midterms to the far bigger stage two years hence. Voters showed they are tired of the Democrats and ready to try something new. And therein lies the key.
Voters want action. They want Congress to get things done. They want the budget passed, the border sealed, ObamaCare fixed or eliminated and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) defeated. And they want these things now. Republicans will be on a short leash and cannot afford to waste this opportunity by spiking the football.
They may have a more willing partner than they think on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. President Obama is said to be a man much concerned with his legacy as president. Right now, that legacy is a healthcare scheme that has hurt far more people than it has helped, financial reform that even further empowered big banks and a stimulus that did not stimulate at all.
But they can't take advantage of that if they follow the advice of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and spend the next two years settling scores. This was, as syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer noted, "much less the doing of the Republicans than [the] self-destruction of the Democrats."
That means Republicans have to produce results — legislation that either the president can sign or that, if he vetoes, will accrue to Republicans' benefits. For example, they will and should pass a full repeal of ObamaCare. He will veto it. But then, if they put forward incremental reforms, he obstructs refinements to his signature political achievement at his party's peril.
The Super Bowl of this political season won't be played for two years. All the Republicans have done is gotten off to a good start in the regular season. If they want to make the playoffs, survive the big tests along the way and prevail in November 2016, they will have to show they can govern.
The playing field won't be remotely the same. The six-year itch won't be around. Instead of a raft of vulnerable Democrats in Senate races, as we had this year, there will be a raft of vulnerable Republicans. Midterm voters tend to be older and whiter than the general electorate; everyone will vote in 2016. And although there may be a lot more Republicans elected to Congress today than there were, say, on Monday, the Republican Brand, as Sen. Rand PaulRand PaulRand Paul rejects label of 'Trump's most loyal stooge' GOP healthcare plans push health savings account expansion Congress must reform civil asset forfeiture laws MORE (R-Ky.) has so eloquently noted, still "sucks."
And even if Republicans govern like adults for two years and truly work to make the country better through the legislative process, it may not be enough. Hillary Clinton will be one of the best-known, most elaborately financed, most formidable candidates the Republicans have ever faced. She has been a bit gaffe-prone of late, but it will take a whopper — maybe even a series of whoppers — to bring her down.
Remember, the Democrats start with a 242-vote lead in the Electoral College. They have 18 states behind the "Big Blue Wall" — meaning those states are unlikely to go Republican under almost any imaginable circumstances.
Republicans have to find a way to break through that wall. They have to find a way to appeal to single women, blacks and Hispanics. They have to be constructive and innovative and positive. They have to build on the momentum of Tuesday, not use it as a springboard to attack the president. There is little reason to attack the president anyway. He can't run again, his poll numbers already are where Republicans want them, and there is little he can do to help Clinton or anyone else who secures the Democratic nomination.
When these two years are up, Americans need to be able to see their country on the upswing and imagine even further improvements are within reach if they return Republicans not only to Congress, but to the White House as well. A lot of things need reforming — infrastructure, transportation, ObamaCare, foreign policy, economic policy, tax policy.
If Republicans can work on those things and focus on making Americans' lives better, they could be in for an even bigger party in 2016.
O'Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, worked on the 2008 McCain-Palin presidential campaign and is author of the book Hail Mary: The 10-Step Playbook for Republican Recovery.