The narrative of tomorrow’s off-year election seems already to be set. In New Jersey, Chris Christie will win a landslide that will confirm his status as a 2016 presidential contender and a potential centrist model for Republican victories in the future. But in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, the impending defeat of Ken Cuccinelli by veteran Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe is supposed to teach the GOP the opposite lesson: that nominating a Tea Party conservative is a death wish that, if applied in other swing states, is a certain guarantee of future disaster.
On the surface, there’s really no arguing with the obvious lessons coming out of these two states. Christie’s ability to win the affection of a broad cross-section of voters in blue New Jersey has turned him from an unlikely underdog winner, when he first beat Jon Corzine for governor in 2009, to a political juggernaut. On the other hand, Cuccinelli has never been able to live down the extremist tag that Democrats labeled him with and it’s unlikely that even the last week’s ObamaCare fiasco will be enough to make that election a close call, let alone allow him to win. But like all generalizations about politics, those drawn from New Jersey and Virginia are as likely to mislead us as they are to provide insight. Those looking to draw firm conclusions about what the GOP should do in 2014, let alone in 2016, should be hesitant about drawing hard and fast rules from these races.
As I wrote yesterday, Christie believes his party should learn from what he’s accomplished in New Jersey. That he hopes that will convince Republicans to nominate him for president is also not a secret. And they would be crazy not to think seriously about how he has managed to govern as a conservative yet project an independent image. That provides him with a powerful argument to be the GOP standard-bearer in 2016. But anyone looking to duplicate Chris Christie’s success elsewhere needs to understand that he is a unique political character in a specific circumstance that isn’t likely to be found elsewhere.
It needs to be understood that despite all the talk about Christie’s centrism, much of that has more to do with atmospherics than political principles. New Jersey Democrats have been complaining for years that Christie is actually quite conservative, and they’re right. Far from being the poster child for “No Labels” centrism, Christie has been willing to work with Democrats in Trenton but mostly on his terms. If he has become the bête noire of GOP conservatives it’s been because of his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy last year and his attacks on House Republicans over their stalling on an aid bill, not because of any heresy on conservative principle. Both on social issues like abortion and Tea Party core interests like reducing the size of government and fighting the power of unions, Christie fits in well with the rest of his party.
He’s gotten away with it not because citizens of the Garden State think he’s a closet liberal but because of the appeal of his personality and governing style. It’s an open question as to whether that brusque approach will play as well on the national stage as it has in New Jersey. But suffice it to say that I doubt a Republican looking to have that success in a different sort of state could use the same playbook. Though pundits will search for one, there’s no point looking for another Christie.
As for Virginia, even conservatives have to concede that Cuccinelli has been more vulnerable to liberal attacks than a more vanilla Republican might have been. But those who see him as the 2013 version of Todd Akin are being unfair. He’s actually made no real gaffes that could be used to brand him as an extremist. But he has been on the receiving end of an almost unprecedented Democratic blitz that sought to demonize him. As Politico reported over the weekend, McAuliffe has been the beneficiary of a fundraising advantage that few Democrats not named Clinton or Obama have enjoyed in recent decades. Combined with a government shutdown that disproportionately affected Virginians, the scandal surrounding the GOP incumbent in Richmond, and the demographic shifts that have already converted the commonwealth from a Republican state to one that might better be described as Democrat-leaning rather than a swing state, doomed Cuccinelli. So while it’s fair for Republicans to speculate whether someone else might have done better, it’s difficult to argue that anyone else would have been in that much stronger a position.
The bottom line here is that political science is not science. The lessons of New Jersey and Virginia are not to be ignored but they are, like almost all electoral scenarios, specific to particular personalities and circumstances. Neither the victory in one state nor the likely defeat in the other can provide Republicans with a foolproof pattern for success.