JOHNSTOWN, PA. — Mark Critz was on top of the world.
Seven years ago this May, Critz — longtime district director for Jack Murtha, the powerful Western Pennsylvania Democratic congressman — had not just won his late boss' seat in a hard-fought special election. He had held the seat for Democrats, handing then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a symbolic victory that she could point to as proof that Democrats were well on their way to expanding their majority that November.
Seven months later, congressional Democrats lost 63 seats — their worst electoral defeat in decades — as disaffected centrist Democrats, conservative-leaning independents and Republicans turned out big.
Voters cast their lots against Barack Obama, against the Democratic Party, and handed the House majority back to Republicans just four years after sweeping them out of office for essentially the same reason: being out of touch with, out of sync with, Main Street America's economic concerns.
Critz's victory wasn't the only special election that Democrats won that year; they won six of them in the leadup to Obama's first midterm election cycle.
Reporters and pundits in Washington were quick to report after each Democratic special-election win that any suggestion of 2010 becoming a "wave" election year for Republicans was a poor calculation indeed.
They were all wrong.
So, what happened?
How could there be six special elections in one cycle, all going to the same party, with that party ending up getting shellacked a few months later?
The answers are complicated. But, simply put, special elections are not harbingers of what the next midterm election's outcome will be – not in the same year and certainly not two years ahead of that Election Day.
Two weeks ago, the political class, progressives and the Republican establishment all glued their eyes to a special election in Kansas to replace Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, who joined the Trump administration as CIA director.
Republican State Treasurer Ron Estes won, beating Democratic rival James Thompson by eight percentage points.
Immediately, Democrats cried victory. Why? Well, because Estes didn't win bigger.
Headlines and tweets proclaimed a "political earthquake," a "major shakeup" and a "harbinger for the 2018" midterms.
All of them claimed the race was a referendum on Trump.
They were wrong.
Special elections are just that — special. They are, typically, driven by local issues and rarely understood by national political reporters who parachute into a district and cover the race from a national perspective, overlooking the local issues that drive voter sentiments.
Everyone looks to interview that one voter who dislikes President Trump, who blames him for switching their vote from reliable Republican to Democrat, and then calls it a story.
The truth is, it is more complicated than that — and it is that kind of reporting (or pontificating) that led to a lot of political professionals getting last year's election results so horribly wrong.
A couple of things were at play in Kansas.
The state's Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is really, really unpopular; that baggage hurt Estes, who serves with him in state government.
The thing Thompson got right was messaging; despite his past life as a Bernie Sanders activist, Thompson wisely portrayed himself as a working-class kid who joined the military, got a college degree and is living the American dream through hard work.
Also, he knows how to shoot a gun — an assault weapon, to be specific.
Thompson ran on family values, his service and a message of fighting for jobs, traditions, veterans and liberty. In short, he ran as though he were a Republican.
His ad was strikingly similar to the ads run by centrist pro-gun, pro-life Blue Dog Democrats who ran and won big for the House in 2006.
The money raised for him by outside progressive groups in small donations was remarkable, too.
The larger lessons of this specific special election have been wildly missed, but the evidence is right under everyone's nose.
First, Democrats are super-energized; they proved that with the amount of money they poured in for Thompson. Second it is clear that they are willing to "go there" with a moderate economic message, at least in this race, and that is important.
And, third, the biggest lesson of this special election is that Democrats are going to run candidates everywhere; there will be Republican incumbents who have not seen a competitive race in their congressional districts for several cycles, but who will see one next year.
Mike Mikus, the Democratic strategist who guided Mark Critz in his special-election victory and again the following November, says Democrats would be wise to repeat the formula they used in 2006 when they recruited candidates in House districts who reflected the values of the region.
Last week, the media covered the second special election race, this one in suburban Georgia, like a NASCAR race gone wild; there were blow-by-blow vote counts, across-the-board speculation that the Democrat was certain to win, and wrong-headed emphasis on the results rather than on what made the race so close.
Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, rose to national attention by raising an astounding $8 million for the election (more than 90 percent of that from outside the district) and making a race of it despite the typical Republican leaning of that district. (Demographics are changing there, but it will be at least a decade before it becomes solidly Democratic).
But the results of a June runoff election between him and Republican winner Karen Handel should focus on who has the better message. Will the political class focus on that? Probably not. They'll look at the results, blame Trump — whether Ossoff wins or loses — and miss what message captures the mood of the electorate.
And message is everything in House races.
"Look, when Critz ran, our tag-line was 'Pro-life, pro-gun, pro-jobs,' " said Mikus, the Democratic strategist. "You can't recruit progressive candidates to run in a place like Cambria County, Pennsylvania, and expect them to win.
"The lessons that we should be focusing on with all of these special elections is not necessarily the outcome, but what message worked and how did we do in fundraising," he said. "That is our blueprint for 2018, not how many wins we notch."
Republicans need to get disciplined, on message, and busy raising money, if they want to hold onto their majority – and Democrats need to learn the real lessons of this special-election cycle and ignore the empty flattery and hype, if they want to make any headway in 2018.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.