2013 Governors' Races Test for National Republican Party Path Forward

Republicans split on how to return to national prominence could learn from state races.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to a large gathering in Manasquan, N.J., Thursday, March 21, 2013, during a town hall meeting.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks to a large gathering in Manasquan, N.J., in March during a town hall meeting.

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But even Wisniewski admits there's something in Christie that national Republicans could learn from.

"The blind dogma that is now the Republican Party cannot win a national election," he says. "If Chris Christie wants to be president of the United States, his job is to move his party from where they are to where they ought to be. I don't know if he can do that."

Cuccinelli, however, has a harder row to hoe.

He boasts a Tea Party reputation in a state that broke for Obama twice, making some moderate Republicans nervous that a winnable race will be handed over to Democrats. Terry McAuliffe, the former DNC chairman, is the presumptive Democratic nominee. He is a controversial figure in his own right, making the race closer than it might have been.

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Cuccinelli's path to the GOP nomination cut through Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's ambition, irritating some in the party who saw the transition between Bolling and the incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell, as a natural one. McDonnell remains popular, however Virginia law allows the governor to only serve one term. But Cuccinelli supporters say he's in line with McDonnell when it comes social conservatism and economic credo. In a speech delivered at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, he started by quoting the Declaration of Independence and offered his interpretation of the opening passage.

"So why are governments instituted? To secure the rights that God has bestowed on us. No more and no less. That's why we have government," he said. Cuccinelli also highlighted his conservative vision for Virginia, citing a desire to simplify the tax code, reduce regulations, pass anti-union right-to-work legislation, implement school choice and pledged to "protect the most vulnerable citizens – that includes all stages of life."

 

"For taking a stand on these most basic rights, Democrats and their liberal allies – I'm sure it's no surprise to you – have labeled me someone who must be defeated at all costs," Cuccinelli added.

Virginia Democrats and the McAuliffe campaign have certainly begun doing their part to paint Cuccinelli as an extremist.

McDonnell "had a few speed bumps" but ran as a pro-business moderate, says one Democratic state operative. "[But] Cuccinelli is miles away. He's running a pugnaciously extreme campaign," he says.

Cuccinelli supporters argue the opposite, saying the attorney general best known for jumping out to lead conservatives in lawsuits against Obamacare is in line with what Virginians want – better roads, lower taxes and their children to be safe.

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"[His reputation] has been hyped up because he is conservative and he is more conservative than Christie, but so is McDonnell," said someone familiar with the campaign. "The CPAC speech was an outline for how the race will be run."

Before serving as the state's top lawyer, Cuccinelli served in the Virginia General Assembly. His district was in Northern Virginia, known for being more liberal than the southern portion of the state, something supporters use to show he is capable of crossover appeal.

But despite Cuccinelli's supporters' optimism, some top national Republican money men are worried his reputation and apparent plan to run as an unabashed conservative could undo his campaign.

"Cuccinelli's election is so important for conservatives on so many different levels – he is so closely identified with the Tea Party movement that for Tea Party-type conservative Republicans, if Cuccinelli loses, it's huge," says one Republican consultant familiar with both Christie and Cuccinelli's campaigns. "It's not the death knell for the Tea Party, but it's probably not far off because he is so closely associated with that."

Outside money groups say they are planning to fundraise and play in Virginia on Cuccinelli's behalf, but haven't made the same commitment yet to Christie because it's not clear he needs the help.

Some D.C. Republicans disagree, however. They say neither Cuccinelli nor Christie is out-of-step with the party and that local politics and national ambitions make the races a poor representation of the struggle facing the party nationally.