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Nov 06 2013

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Take Aways From Election 2013

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Disappointment, But Not a Trend...

Some Disappointment, But Not a National Trend…

The election wasn’t even over before the new political narratives began spinning.

First, there was New Jersey. Chris Christie’s landslide victory in a blue state where a GOP governor ran up impressive margins among women, Latinos, African-Americans and even Democrats, is now the proven blueprint for a successful GOP candidate in 2016. As a result of his success, Christie jumps to the head of the line as the first among equals in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes.

Ken Cuccinelli’s loss in Virginia, on the other hand, represents a stinging indictment for the Tea Party, vividly displaying the attendant risks of nominating deeply committed social conservatives in a diverse swing state. The in-fighting and recrimination that begins today in the VA GOP, assessing “what went wrong” will be a microcosm of the rift between “Establishment” and Tea Party backers that will have national implications for the GOP in 2014 and ultimately 2016.

For narrative shapers, the distinctiveness of the results – a moderate “doer” wins versus a conservative ‘fighter” who lost, could not be clearer.

But of course the facts reveal a more complicated portrait.

New Jersey:

Christie kicked butt.  There is simply no other way to see it. What he pulled off yesterday looks a lot like George W. Bush’s gubernatorial win in 1998 where Bush garnered huge margins among Latinos, and ran a campaign emphasizing his bipartisan, results-oriented governing style as the implicit antidote to the toxic politics of Washington. And like Bush in ’00, Christie is hoping that the size and diversity of his winning margins yesterday will set him up in 2016.

But there are mitigating factors.

Christie didn’t have real competition. State Senator Barbara Buono was obscure and unknown. National Democrats invested little in the race. It was broken field running for Christie to shape the message he wanted to deliver (with a focus on a potential national audience) without having to worry about serious attacks by the opposition. One need only read about the Romney vetting process for Christie as a potential VP to see that there were grounds for a political attack. Christie never had to respond to these charges.

But looking more broadly, consider how the results could have been different if Cory Booker – the popular, just elected Senator from NJ – had chosen to run for governor instead of the Senate. The is little doubt that the contours of the result would have been dramatically different, with no assurance that Christie would even win.

Perhaps more important to 2016, the Christie win yesterday was more a victory for “Christie-ism,” than for the GOP and conservative principles.  Christie is a charismatic politician who has forged an indelible persona as a blunt-talking truth teller, an in-your-face fighter who knows how to cut a deal. He has a lot of national fans in the GOP – with deep pockets – but it has yet to be seen whether a validation of Christie’s personal leadership, that fits neatly into NJ, is transferable to the national stage of GOP primary voters, even with the impressiveness of his victory yesterday.

In addition, it will be very interesting to compare Christie a year from now, when governors like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker will be up for re-election.  Walker and a cohort of other GOP leaders are far more identified as conservatives-first, where principles instead of personal popularity is the hallmark of their leadership. If these governors win, it will present a clear contrast to Christie’s victory, and offer a very real choice the GOP grassroots on the kind of leader they are seeking.

Virginia:

There is simply no reason that the GOP should have lost this race.

Republicans do well in off-year election in Virginia, even with the changing demographics of the state. In 2009, Robert McDonnell won the state by 18 points. For those who bank on the mysticism of politics, it has been a durable trend that whatever party controls the White House loses in the VA governor’s race, which takes place the following year.  That record was broken yesterday.

And then there was the opposition.  Terry McAuliffe?  Mega-fundraiser. Auctioneer of the Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder. Crony Capitalist involved in failed green tech ventures. Confidant of the Clintons. A candidate with no governing experience, scant interest in state/local issues and running on a platform of platitudes.

This should have been short work for the GOP, but it wasn’t.

Why?

While the blame game that begins today will focus on Republican turn-coats who abandoned the GOP standard-bearer, the facts speak to a different truth. Cuccinelli and his most conservative backers engineered a tightly controlled political convention instead of a state-wide primary for the selection of candidates. With only 8,000 of the most conservative GOPers participating in the selection (out of over million GOP voters statewide), the state GOP essentially denied the vast number of loyal Republican voters a voice in their party’s nominees.

A conservative, but practical Republican, Lt Governor Bill Bolling, who had broad support within the party, but not within its most conservative elements, chose not to run as the convention approach was all but rigged to guarantee Cuccinelli’s nomination.

The convention approach, in addition to disenfranchising the vast majority of Republicans, also gave life to Robert Sarvis’ more credible third-party challenge. Cuccinelli’s long record of strong advocacy for socially conservative policies – particularly during his tenure as Attorney General –  turned off Libertarian voters who otherwise would have been attracted to a strong economic freedom agenda.  That is how Bob McDonnell – also a strong social conservative – won in 2009. It was jobs and growth each day, every day.

In sum, Cuccinelli was a flawed candidate from the day of his nomination. Any honest appraisal of what went wrong in Virginia must start with the nomination process that was not inclusive. Those that blame disaffected Republicans for Cooch’s defeat today need only look in the mirror to understand who bears ultimately responsibility. Those activists who were diabolically uninterested in Republican votes this spring have little justification to complain about the failure of GOP support in November.

And there were also challenges beyond Cuccinelli’s control that made things worse. Governor Bob McDonnell is under a wide-ranging ethics investigation, which hung over Cuccinelli’s campaign and neutralized McDonnell, who had been widely praised for his stewardship before the ethics scandal broke.

Cuccinelli also suffered from the government shutdown. Northern Virginia is home to a huge number of federal workers, and as a Tea Party backed candidate, Cuccinelli suffered guilt by association. It was probably not the brightest political decision to have Ted Cruz campaign with Cuccinelli, since it was only a reminder to northern Virginia voters of Cooch’s core bone fides.

But for all the flaws, divisions and missteps on the Republican side, Terry McAuliffe’s victory is a win without an endorsement. Mac out-spent Cuccinelli  4-1 ( a great deal of that coming from outside the state) and was able to attract the brightest lights in the Democratic party to campaign for him – including both Clintons and the President. In the end, he won by 54,000 votes out of two million votes cast. He didn’t clear 50 percent of the vote. The House of Delegates is still overwhelmingly Republican, showing that there were no McAuliffe coattails. A single, contested race will determine whether the House keeps its override power over the governor. Three new vacancies in the state Senate offer the possibility that the current 20-20 split could become a GOP majority of 1.

McAuliffe has won, but he has no mandate and no political means to implement an agenda – even one based off the puffery that substituted for a real governing platform.

And while Democrats believe they may have found a winning formula to beat conservative Republicans in a swing state, McAuliffe’s win actually highlights a much bigger problem for Democrats.

Until two weeks ago, Mac was leading in the polls – anywhere from 6-12 points. The Real Clear Politics rolling average had him at 6.4 percent on Election Day. Yet he won by 2.4 percent.  The reason?

Obamacare.

Cuccinelli, who was one of the first state AG’s to challenge Obamacare in court, used the last two weeks of the campaign tying McAuliffe to Obamacare and highlighting the cascading disaster that has been the rollout and loss of coverage for millions of Americans.

It worked.

What had been a durable McAuliffe lead since the spring melted away in the closing days of the campaign with the growing public anger at Obamacare. Democrats dismiss this at their own peril.

For Republicans, there is a tantalizing unknown. Had GOP conservatives not shut down the government in the first two weeks of October – had the nation been focused solely on the catastrophic O-care rollout – would the much earlier, public dissatisfaction been enough to push Cooch over the top? We can’t know, but it is still an object lesson on the implications of fighting without any way to win, and stepping on your own best message in the process.

When conservatives are searching for a scapegoat for Virginia today, they might ultimately find that Ted Cruz is a good first place to start.

Impacts:

While every election reveals plans, policies, issues and processes that are useful in discerning public attitudes, it is hard to say that 2013 is a primer for what comes next in 2014 and beyond.

Clearly Christie’s win creates the image of a top-shelf national candidate for the GOP, but not without less well understood limitations on such a candidacy in practice. Likewise, McAuliffe’s win in Virginia is not so much evidence of Virginia turning blue as it is a reflection of an insular and unresponsive state Republican Party and a flawed nomination process, compounded by events beyond either candidates’ control.

Democrats proved again that an intense focus on abortion and birth control is an effective wedge for female voters, regardless of how inaccurate the representation may be. The GOP learned – too late – that Obamacare angst is real and growing, and has the capability to move elections.  That trend will only continue in the coming months creating a potentially new dynamic for 2014 and beyond.

The question for tomorrow, based on yesterday’s results, is what will hit critical mass first? Public anger over Obamacare, or an avoidable divide between the GOP and the Tea Party that fractures the opposition?

That is the race that matters to the future.

 

 

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