It’s usually a mistake to read too much into off-year elections, but it’s safe to say that New Jersey represents the Republicans’ hopes while Virginia exemplified their fears.
Chris Christie’s blowout reelection featured it all. A Republican won in a predominantly Democratic state with the support of 66 percent of independents. He carried 76 percent of working-class whites, 51 percent of Hispanics, and even 21 percent of African-Americans.
Although pro-life, Christie won 57 percent of the women’s vote against a pro-choice female Democrat. Despite his high-profile fights against public sector unions, 46 percent of union households voted for him.
Not a bad showing for the man who would like to be the GOP’s 2016 presidential nominee—and a good example of what the party hopes can happen nationally.
By contrast, Virginia reminded Republicans of everything that could go wrong. It was yet another loss in a once-red state. The “war on women” prevailed once again, as the Republicans were painted as prudish fanatics bent on banning sodomy and birth control.
Perhaps worst of all, Terry McAuliffe was the first candidate besides Barack Obama to win the state by running as a completely conventional liberal Democrat. It was Ken Cuccinelli—elected attorney general with 58 percent of the vote just four years ago, when McAuliffe was badly defeated in a Democratic primary—who was “too extreme for Virginia,” as the ads said repeatedly.
Christie’s results will be rehashed endlessly, as he now seeks to pivot to a national election. It’s hard to remember, but George W. Bush once ran against both a Democratic president and Republican Congress while touting the minority support he enjoyed in his gubernatorial reelection race.
Virginia will occasion equally endless finger-pointing, as virtually every part of the Republican coalition shares some of the blame for Cuccinelli’s surprisingly narrow defeat. Neither the party establishment nor the Tea Party spent enough on what now in retrospect looks like an obviously winnable race (even though the pre-election polls predicted a much bigger Democratic margin).
Moderates deserve some of the blame for basically sitting out the election in protest of the nominee, such as when Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling refused to endorse Cuccinelli.
High-dollar donors turned off by Cucinelli’s combination of anti-cronyism and social conservatism did the same.
Grassroots activists insisted on a convention rather than a primary, which probably wouldn’t have produced a different nominee—Cuccinelli likely would have still beaten Bolling, but E.W. Jackson wouldn’t have been the candidate for lieutenant governor—but might have resulted in a more united party.
Social conservatives’ issues didn’t play well in Northern Virginia and libertarians didn’t play at all, promoting Robert Sarvis’ third-party candidacy instead. (Though both Ron and Rand Paul campaigned for Cuccinelli, as did many of the young libertarian activists the Pauls have brought into the Republican Party.)
Cuccinelli alternated between alienating conservatives, by appearing to spurn Ted Cruz, and repelling moderates, by failing to rebut allegations of social extremism. The Democratic emphasis on birth control made Cuccinelli’s showing among unmarried women a Goldwater-like debacle.
The Virginia governor’s race was a perfect foil for the circular firing squad that has dominated the GOP since Obama won a second term. Each aggrieved group’s spin is plausible because partially true. And each of these missteps can reasonably be said to have affected the outcome of the race.
Hate the Tea Party? Loathe Karl Rove? No matter who your favorite Republican bogeyman is, there is something for everyone in the Virginia governor’s race.
Yet the fact that the end result was so close even after all these problems should give conservatives hope as well as regrets. There is no hard proof that the disastrous Obamacare roll-out was the main reason the race tightened at the end—Cuccinelli won those who voted on health care by just 4 points. McAuliffe was himself deeply unpopular and the polls showing him likely to win probably caused undecideds to break heavily Republican.
Nevertheless, nothing in the Virginia results ought to make Obamacare partisans feel good. If there had been no government shutdown and all the attention had been on canceled insurance plans or dodgy government websites, Cuccinelli might have won. Obamacare was at the very least a liability to McAuliffe in a state becoming more liberal than where Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu will be up for reelection.
Conservatives should also be cautious about misinterpreting the Christie landslide, too. Christie will be hard pressed to replicate those numbers at the national level. Hillary Clinton—who topped Christie for president in the New Jersey exit polls—isn’t Barbara Buono.
There was one clear verdict voters in both states sent: Republicans can win, but they aren’t out of the woods yet.
Image: Flickr/Bob Jagendorf