Following months of fierce campaigning and cautious Democratic optimism, Tuesday night brought to pass almost everything Democrats, among whose numbers most of us count ourselves, could have hoped for. Democrats picked up what looks to be the necessary six seats to take control of the Senate, and more than enough seats to control the House, including two out of what had been Connecticut’s three Republican seats. And though some blue candidates — gubernatorial candidate and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Democratic Senate candidate Ned Lamont come to mind — were unsuccessful, only the most perfectionist Democrat could find much to complain about in Tuesday night’s victory. To those perfectionists: Cheer up, and look at how Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reacted to the news.

Beyond just the House’s change of leadership, other, smaller victories on Tuesday gave liberals reason for optimism. Keith Ellison, a newly elected Democratic congressman from Minnesota, is the first Muslim elected to the House. Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the likely speaker of the House, would be the first woman ever to hold the seat. And though seven states voted to limit the definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman, South Dakota voters rejected the state’s broad ban on abortions, denying anti-abortion proponents a chance to challenge Roe v. Wade in court.

Better yet, according to some exit polls, 24 percent of eligible voters under age 30 voted, 4 percent more than had done so in 2002’s midterm elections. A record number of voters turned out in New Haven’s wards 1 and 22, where significant numbers of Yale students live. Considering how often young voters are condemned for being disengaged and apathetic, that turnout should make any politician aware that young voters can and do get engaged.

Democrats, though, should realize that many citizens undoubtedly voted for them in order to vote against the Republican incumbents. The challenge now is for both the freshmen Democrats and their new leadership to use this opportunity to show that they can live up to our high expectations of them. For many, this election was a referendum on a single issue: the war in Iraq. Now, particularly with the resignation of Rumsfeld, the Democrats in Congress need to forget the false divide between “stay the course” and “cut and run” and take leadership on determining our nation’s future in the Middle East. The anger voters felt at last term’s incumbents for appearing lethargic on Iraq was not just directed at Republicans. Democrats, too, bear some responsibility for past inaction, and now they are in the position of being able to take the bulk of the future credit — or blame.

For just as 2006 was a referendum on our president’s policies since he was elected to his second term, 2008 will be a referendum on the Democratic Party’s accomplishments between now and then. Let’s hope that the Democrats, in the next two years, will give us as much reason to be proud of them as the Republicans, in the past two years, gave us a reason to be mad.