Election Day 2011 is over, and the victories for Democrats – and more accurately, for liberal values – across the country largely shared a characteristic – they were successful defensive actions to stave off extremely draconian conservative objectives.

The most notable of these came in Ohio, where SB 5, the anti-union bill which stripped most collective bargaining rights from public employees, went down to an emphatic defeat. Organized labor absolutely laid out for this victory, but as it turned out, the margin was pretty much the same as when the anti-union bill was initially polled this winter.

Ohio Governor John Kasich clearly overreached on a variety of levels, making Scott Walker look like a tactical genius, by including police and firefighters in his restrictions, and pushing the unpopular, unilateral, no-holds-barred measure in a state that has a referendum process available to the opposition. Ultimately, however, this was a rear-guard action to block union-busting, maintaining current protections rather than expanding them. When Ohio AFL-CIO chief Tim Burga says in his statement after the win that “Today’s vote showed that Ohioans are desperate for political leadership and cooperation to get people back on the job and in the middle class,” he says it without expecting that such leadership and cooperation will actually show up in Columbus. John Kasich still has three years to go.

Other victories for liberal values were defensive in nature. Voters in Mississippi, in a mild surprise, defeated the so-called “Personhood” amendment that would have defined life as beginning at conception, with 57% of the vote. In Maine, voters restored a four decade-old law that allows for same-day voter registration, repealing a Republican-passed bill changing that law. In Arizona, Russell Pearce, the architect of SB 1070, fell victim to a recall in favor of a moderate Republican, in an election pushed hard by Latino activists in the state as punishment for the anti-immigration law. In Iowa, former television broadcaster Liz Mathis won election to the state Senate, stopping Governor Terry Branstad’s gambit to flip the chamber to Republicans and protecting, among other things, the state’s marriage equality law.

These were significant victories, especially the personhood vote in Mississippi (sure to discourage those pushing similar measures in six states, and the defeat of SB 5 in Ohio. They featured a lot of hard work to protect the gains over many decades, and to punish those who tried to roll back those gains or punish the weak. In Pearce’s case, it was merely a glancing blow after the damage had been done; he reportedly said, “If being recalled is the price for keeping one’s promises, so be it.”

The Obama Administration is right to salute the work done in achieving these victories last night. The fact that they weren’t even that close is notable. But ultimately, as I said, they were rearguard actions. They won’t make material improvements in anyone’s life; they will ensure that things don’t get worse

Meanwhile, conservatives notched some lesser-known wins of their own on Election Night 2011. In Ohio, they scored a largely symbolic victory against the health care individual mandate. In Mississippi, they were victorious in imposing a measure enforcing a strict photo ID requirement for voting, one that is sure to disenfranchise some of the large African-American population in the state. In Virginia, it appears that Democrats lost the state Senate (in the final race, which will decide the matter, the Democrat trails by 86 votes out of 45,000 cast), giving Republicans full control of government, which bodes ill for what Bob McDonnell will try to accomplish. Democrats relinquished the state House in Mississippi as well.

You can maybe extrapolate from Election Day 2011 how Democrats may fare on Election Day 2012; to those who claim the two are unrelated, 2009 served as a pretty reliable early warning system for 2010. But you can also extrapolate that this era of politics features liberals trying to hold on to what they’ve achieved, with conservatives pounding away and making inroads where they can. It has the feel of a treadmill, where the success translates into continuing to run in place. At some point, people hunger to move forward. This is a good start, hopefully it can be built upon.