The Virginia governor’s race was supposed to prove how the Tea Party destroyed the GOP. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to be too extreme and too much of a right-winger to be competitive. McAuliffe, who had a double-digit lead as late as two weeks ago, was coasting to victory on the strength of the national disgust over the government shutdown that hit Northern Virginia with its large number of federal employees hard. But once the shutdown ended and the country began to take notice of the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, the dynamic in Virginia changed. While liberal pundits will probably be tying themselves in knots to discount the ObamaCare factor, there’s little question that Cuccinelli’s big comeback that wound up turning a rout into a narrow election was primarily due to the way the president’s signature health-care legislation changed the political mood of the nation. A website that didn’t work was one thing. But the last week, during which the president’s broken promises about keeping coverage were exposed (a problem made worse by the disingenuous spin by the president and his press spokesman), not only motivated more of the GOP base to turn out in Virginia but had to have lost Democrats some swing voters.
The real lessons from the Virginia vote turn out to be a lot more complicated than the simplistic idea that the Tea Party’s rise would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. The reason why Cuccinelli fell short in Virginia was due in part to the way the national party abandoned his cause and allowed him to be massively outspent. This is something angry Tea Partiers won’t forget. But they should also realize that the hole Cuccinelli was in two weeks ago was also due to the shutdown they had recklessly engineered. In the end, the two factors may have balanced each other out, leaving the real problem for the GOP the same one that sunk Mitt Romney there in 2012: changing demographics that have transformed a once red state into a purple or light blue one.
That factor will reassure Democrats that they are still the wave of the future. But rather than celebrate, they should be thinking about the way anger about ObamaCare can transform elections. Liberals may still be clinging to their belief that eventually the website will be fixed and everyone will love it. But the last week of anger about broken promises and dropped coverage should alert them to the likelihood that it will not only continue to be unpopular but will grow more so as its impact on rising premiums and the economy becomes more pronounced in 2014.
Anyone who thinks this won’t be a factor a year from now as control of the Senate hangs in the balance is not paying attention to the reality of a dysfunctional program and a White House still wrapped up in denial of the larger problem. The growing unpopularity of the president and ObamaCare complicate any Democratic plans for the midterms. Democrats had a huge financial and demographic advantage in Virginia as well as a divided GOP and a false flag Libertarian candidate that might have taken votes away from the Republicans. But they still only managed a narrow victory. That’s a result that ought to convince many in the GOP that 2014 may still be a good year for them.
As for Tea Partiers, they will be right to be angry about the way some in the GOP were ready to let Cuccinelli lose. But they need to take responsibility for their own role in his defeat. While the liberal media will continue to beat the drums for the Democrats’ talking point about the faux GOP war on women, the shutdown is what killed Cuccinelli. The Tea Party is not the kiss of death some on the left contend it is, but the suicidal tactics it has urged on the GOP are a real problem. Without it, the nation would have been focused on ObamaCare weeks earlier and might have given him more of a chance. A repeat of that tactic in the coming year—something that Ted Cruz and others won’t take off the table—would be exactly what the Democrats need to get the public’s minds off Obama’s lies.
In other words, both parties have much to learn from the results. The party that absorbs these lessons best will likely triumph 12 months from now.