The gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia in the off years following presidential election years always get more attention than they deserve. That’s probably because there is so little competition for political news in this becalmed period before the real midterm congressional races begin. Political old-timers may recall the glee with which President Richard Nixon greeted news of two GOP gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia in 1969, a year following his own narrow presidential triumph. But it meant nothing a year later, when the midterm congressional elections proved an embarrassment to the Nixon administration.
But there may be a couple shards of meaning worth picking up from this week’s election night debris. First, look at New Jersey’s Republican governor Chris Christie against the backdrop of the country’s political crisis, a product mostly of the fact that the United States is fiercely deadlocked on huge definitional questions—the role and scope of the federal government, emotional social issues such as same-sex marriage, the distribution of political power in the polity, and the proper distribution of wealth and income.
Many pols and pundits believe all this could be solved if we could just find a middle-ground politician willing and able to compromise away these enervating deadlocks, splitting the difference on such matters— and marginalizing the GOP’s agitated Tea Party forces in the process. That isn’t going to happen. The deadlocks will be broken, and the country returned to a clear path into the future, only through presidential leadership that crafts a new national coalition based upon a new political synthesis.
Think Theodore Roosevelt, who interjected into GOP politics just enough progressive thinking to scramble up the fault lines of politics in ways that fostered a new GOP coalition. Think Ronald Reagan, who brought to his GOP banner a significant chunk of traditional Democratic voters—the so-called Reagan Democrats—and refurbished the Republican Party. Think Franklin Roosevelt, who crafted the most potent coalition of all by picking off traditional Republican voters and aligning them with his own party’s traditional supporters.
Is Chris Christie the kind of politician who could pull off such a political coup?
It’s too early to tell, but he appears to have the makings of such a politician. It isn’t just that his four-year record of incumbency netted him a reelection margin of 60.4 percent compared to just 38.1 percent for his Democratic opponent, although that suggests that he is capable of generating considerable political force. More significant is his performance among particular voter categories. Women gave him a 15 percentage-point advantage over his female rival. People who identified themselves as moderates gave him a 21-point advantage. Independent voters turned to him by a 31-point margin. Even 30 percent of self-described liberals backed him. Meanwhile, he took half of the Hispanic vote and more than 20 percent of the African-American vote.
And yet Christie doesn’t come across as a liberal or a namby-pamby compromise freak. Quite the contrary, his political persona projects straight talk, tough-minded thinking, common sense, and a kind of instinctive hostility to abstractionist liberalism disconnected from real-world actualities. Is this a brand of politics that could sweep the country and generate a new political force capable of breaking the country’s deadlock crises and set it upon a new course? It bears watching.
Looking at the Virginia race, where Democratic Terry McAuliffe pulled off a narrow win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the pundits were struck by how the race ended up being much closer than the late polls suggested it would. Those polls didn’t pick up a late Cuccinelli surge, which probably can be tied to a late-campaign attack by Cuccinelli on President Obama’s troubled Affordable Care Act rollout. Exit polls indicated that those who opposed ObamaCare—a small majority in Virginia, according to the survey—were highly energized by the issue. That is significant.
To many pundits, the lessons were clear: the Republican Party needs to dump the Tea Party and adopt more centrist policies such as those put forward by Chris Christie. But it isn’t that simple. First, the Tea Party isn’t going away, and so the Republican Party will have to craft a brand of politics that can domesticate this agitated voting bloc. Second, Christie isn’t really all that centrist when it comes to two-party wedge issues. He looks more like a conservative populist, made manifest by his veto of legislation to hike taxes on millionaires; his successful efforts to cap property taxes; his attack on tenure policies that made it difficult or impossible to fire incompetent teachers; and his assault on his state’s out-of-control public-employee pensions.
Democrats and left-leaning pundits can take satisfaction, if they wish, in McAuliffe’s narrow victory and Christie’s presumed liberalism. But the elephant in the room is the potential political fallout posed by Obamacare. That may be the real significance, if there is any, of these election results.
Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Image: Flickr/Bob Jagendorf. CC BY 2.0.