As expected, the inevitable analysis regarding the races for Governor in New Jersey and Virginia has begun. As predicted, that analysis was thus: the way for Republicans to win is through moderation. Nowhere is the dichotomy in analysis more evident than in these divergent headlines from media competitors CNN and Fox News. The CNN headline: “Right Wing ideologue burns Republicans in Virginia.” The Fox headline: “Virginia Squeaker Sends Shiver Through Democrats.”
As mentioned in a previous article, these races will have little bearing on the 2014 midterm elections and a more likely influence on the 2016 presidential race. As concerns New Jersey, the talk is about Chris Christie in particular and the way forward for the GOP in general. As a lifelong resident of New Jersey, I cannot reiterate this fact enough: Chris Christie as a Republican in New Jersey plays particularly well to the New Jersey electorate more than he plays to the national Republican electorate. Leaving aside his gruff attitude- a personality trait way overplayed by the media, by the way- in order to achieve that facade of “moderation,” he has to walk a fine line. If anything, we have learned that Christie, besides being an excellent federal prosecutor, has grown into being a very adept politician. For example, his first budget seriously cut educational funding of which the bulk of those cuts were eventually restored by the New Jersey supreme court with nary a word from the Governor’s office other than bombastic bluster. The fact that he pushed through those budget cuts was testimony to political acumen. In exchange for the restoration of those cuts through judicial fiat- perhaps his strategy all along- he obtained concessions from the powerful teacher’s union and other public worker unions. He claims to have cut taxes, but I have not seen it in my pay check while my property taxes have increased, albeit at a slower rate than under any Democratic governor. His stance on gay marriage is one of personal opposition, but he has done nothing of a “bully pulpit” type campaign against it. Again, he can hide behind the actions of the state supreme court, claim a respect for the law, and allow gay marriage in New Jersey to proceed while still claiming conservative credentials. It is shrewd politics.
Christie is probably quite aware that if he has any presidential aspirations in 2016, a possibly brutal primary season is in the cards. Thus, in his second term, besides tracking his out-of-state travels, we will have to see if he tacks to the right and with whom he picks his battles. There is still a lot to be done in educational reform in the state. If current events are any indication, his adoption of the Core Curriculum State Standards does not bode well in enhancing his conservative credentials. He would likely play well to Republican primary voters in states like New York, California and Washington, but outside of blue states it is hard to see him gaining any traction or momentum. These bluer states have primaries later in the season and Christie needs to survive the likes of GOP voters and caucus-goers in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida. However, Christie is correct when he asserts that the GOP has it half-ass backwards- more concern with philosophy and less concern with winning first. Again, this is the comment of a shrewd politician.
Finally, as concerns New Jersey, Democratic challenger Barbara Buono was nothing more than this year’s sacrificial lamb. When nominated, Christie was riding a wave of popularity almost unprecedented for a Republican in New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Parsing her concession speech, it was less a concession speech and more an indictment of her own party and her perceived slight by that party and their less than enthusiastic support for her candidacy.
Virginia is a qualitatively different state of affairs altogether. It has only recently been anointed a swing state after Obama carried it twice. While the liberal media is dancing on the grave of Ken Cuccinelli and the Virginia GOP, especially the Tea Party element, they are ignorant of a few facts. First, this recent swing designation is due to the two most recent Obama wins in that state. In 2008, he won with a 235,000 vote margin over McCain that shrunk to a 149,000 margin victory in 2012. That is an average of 192,000 votes. Compared against the Bush victory margins in 2000 and 2004, the differences are interesting. Bush had average victory margins of 241,000 votes. The difference between the two is about 51,000. For a Republican to prevail in Virginia in a presidential race, all they have to do is steal one or two of the more populous northern counties, or make close races in 3-4 of the more populous counties. Both of these are more than possible. Because a political hack like Terry McAuliffe won in Virginia is not indicative of the future of Virginia in presidential politics.
Equally important is the fact that the great Republican down ballot apocalypse of 2013 did not occur in Virginia. Republicans captured 67 of 100 seats in the state House of Delegates. In a narrow victory, they also retained the Attorney General’s office, the very office being vacated by Cuccinelli. The House of Delegate election results reveal a more telling story. In 32 of the 67 races won by Republicans, the winner ran unopposed by a Democrat. Conversely, in 24 of the 33 seats won by Democrats, they ran unopposed by a Republican candidate. In other words, of the 44 races where there was a Republican versus Democratic candidate match up, Republicans won 35 of those races- or 79.5% of races. Admittedly, some of these races were close and depending if a recount occurs, it may change the results. But there are only 2-3 such races plus one very close race where a Republican may be the eventual winner. Regardless, down ballot the Republicans did very, very well.
Furthermore, while McAuliffe was winning the Governor’s mansion with less than 50% of the vote, thus denying him any claim to an electoral mandate, of the more than 2 million ballots cast in House of Delegate races, Republicans received 54.2% of those votes while Democrats received only 40.7% of these votes. Third party or write-in candidates received the remaining 5.1%. In the one race where a third party candidate came even remotely close, their opponent was a Democrat.
And why did McAuliffe receive less than 50% of the vote? Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis’ 6.6% of the vote. In polls leading up to Election Day, he had an anticipated 10% of the vote. However, looking at past elections where a third party candidate was on the ballot, the trend in polls was similar to this year, but the third party candidate usually settled with no more than 2.2% of the vote. Obviously, Sarvis siphoned votes away from Cuccinelli to the benefit of McAuliffe. McAuliffe won by 55,737 votes. If Sarvis had performed as the best previous third party candidate in recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia (2.2% of the vote), the post mortem analysis would be a lot different today since Cuccinelli would have won by almost 6,600 votes. Furthermore, we know that a Democratic fundraising ally of Obama from Texas had invested heavily in Sarvis’ candidacy. It was a shrewd political tactic in this case and a game/trend to be watched in the future in other close races. Perhaps the GOP should consider funding some Green Party candidates in liberal states.
Much has been made of the spending gap between the candidates. Personally, I do not much stock in these figures since he who raises/spends the most is not guaranteed victory. In fact, it is usually a 50/50 proposition. Thus, this race proves me out. McAuliffe far outspent Cuccinelli, yet Cuccinelli came dangerously close to victory. It was not a case of if Cuccinelli had more financial support he would have won; it is a case of if Cuccinelli had another week, he would have won.
And this is born out by a very telling and under-reported exit polling result. Although Terry McAuliffe may be the next Democratic Governor of Virginia, Obamacare is equally unpopular in Virginia. Cuccinelli was not defeated because voters were turned off by his stances on the social issues, but because he was a victim of events in neighboring DC that were beyond his control. The government shutdown is probably the biggest single factor in the defeat of Cuccinelli, especially in a state rich in federal employees. This action was simply a 2-4 week distraction. Once the distraction became a thing of the past, Cuccinelli surged in the polls and in the final vote count. In fact, as soon as the negative publicity over Obamacare dominated the news in Virginia and nationally it is exactly the point in time when Cuccinelli’s poll numbers started to rise. As one of the first state attorney generals to challenge Obamacare and now knowing what it entailed and all the hardships being paraded on the news, his electability suddenly increased. If Cuccinelli wanted to blame any one individual for his defeat, it could be Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Finally with respect to Virginia, there is some commentary that by foregoing a primary and instead using a convention to name a nominee, the GOP insured electoral defeat. The theory goes that the convention was dominated by the more conservative elements in the Virginia GOP, thus insuring a Cuccinelli nomination. But, as these facts above illustrate, they got the right candidate against the right opponent. The only thing that convention got wrong was the national circumstances- mainly the government shutdown- and that was something they could not have anticipated. We will never know how another candidate would have fared against McAuliffe and in the end, it really makes little difference. The best that can be said about the Virginia results is that their residents will get another chance in four years to get it right and it may just be Ken Cuccinelli.
Before concluding, there were other races of interest on Tuesday receiving scant national attention. The first is the special election in Alabama’s 1st Congressional district, particularly the Republican run-off. The general election to fill that vacancy will be held in December. This is a particularly Republican district and winning the primary is almost tantamount to a general election victory. In that run off on Tuesday, former state senator Bradley Byrne defeated Tea Party activist Dean Young. Yet again, before we start dancing on the grave of the Tea Party especially in a red state like Alabama, keep in mind that Young lost by less than 4,000 votes of 72,000 votes cast. Outside of liberal strongholds like Maine, New York and New Jersey, high profile liberal statewide ballot initiatives failed. Most telling was the defeat of a massive tax increase in Colorado that can best be described as massive wealth redistribution in the name of educational funding and reform.
In the end, both Chris Christie and Ken Cuccinelli deserve kudos for their performances on Election Day. Virginia made their choice and they will likely come to regret that choice. He will face a Republican legislature. Christie will face a Democratic legislature behind which he can hide should his agenda fail to be passed in New Jersey. The difference is that McAuliffe will call it Republican “obstruction” while Christie will use it to his political advantage.