Conventional wisdom has it that the Republican Party needs to emerge from the ashes of the 2012 election with a new recipe for success – whether or not that means greater party purity or greater willingness to compromise has yet to be determined.
As Congress copes with major issues such as gun control, immigration and budget battles ahead of the 2014 midterm election, lawmakers are sorting out for themselves which path is best.
But a pair of 2013 gubernatorial contests may end up proving the best case study of all for the GOP as it looks for improved outcomes in races that stretch beyond carefully crafted partisan congressional districts.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie is running for re-election with a near atmospheric approval rating – 68 percent in a recent poll – thanks to his straight-talking style and universally praised leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli sets a more divisive tone, as the first attorney general to sue the federal government over the Affordable Care Act, also known as 'Obamacare,' he has a Tea Party reputation and is an outspoken social conservative. How they navigate their races and what kind of success they have could prove to be the canary in the coal mine for the national party.
Christie's path to victory appears obvious.
As the Republican governor of a blue state that President Barack Obama won by 18 points, he's spent his first term crafting deals with the Democratically controlled legislature that hold as fast to his fiscally conservative principles as possible. That means he can sell himself as a bipartisan compromiser but also a man of principle, having vetoed measures that would have raised the minimum wage for example.
"Everything has been bipartisan by the very nature or it wouldn't have happened in New Jersey," says Mike DuHaime, a top GOP consultant working for Christie's re-election. "So that means there has been compromise – he hasn't gotten everything he's wanted, the Democratic legislature hasn't gotten everything they wanted, but that's what people expect from their government. They expect people to work together."
That attitude is what propelled Christie to embrace Obama when he came to survey storm damage leading up to the 2012 election, despite the fact Christie had been a top surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Many in the Romney camp, and across the party, have remained bitter that Christie so eagerly praised the president. New Jersey Democrats point to the occasion as an explanation for the sometimes bombastic governor's high approval marks, but DuHaime says the governor was popular even before the storm.
"People have fixed opinions on him," he says. "The reason he won last time is that he does very well among Republicans, he did incredibly well among independent voters and then he got a significant chunk of moderate to conservative Democrats as well."
Christie became a conservative favorite because of his confrontational manner – his office often released YouTube videos of the governor talking tough to teachers as he was working to enact education reforms – and willingness to speak bluntly. He was even considered a top potential presidential candidate in 2012 and may well run in 2016. And while few would argue he isn't a 'true conservative,' it's his deal-making nature, and willingness to work with top Democrats in his state rather than demonize them that has led him to the cusp of re-election against a lesser known Democratic opponent.
"As a Republican governor with a Democratic Legislature, if there's going to be a bill on his desk, it's going to be a compromise; this notion that he's this great compromiser is a little overblown," says John Wisniewski, a New Jersey assemblyman and state Democratic Party chairman. "It's akin to giving the governor credit for breathing."
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.
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.
"[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.
"In both instances it seems to me, you have two candidates who are not well outside of the mainstream," says a former Republican National Party official who worked on the Romney campaign. "This isn't a Michele Bachmann-esque candidacy that's trying to tap into the anger that exists on the far right and neither of them is emerging from a contentious primary battle where you have that."
Larry Sabato, a well-known political prognosticator who runs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says there's no law that says political parties have to win – but if the party wants to broaden its appeal, it has to be honest about what electoral results tell them.
"If the Republican base across the country today had to pick their favorite gubernatorial candidate and the two choices were Chris Christie and Ken Cuccinelli, which one do you think would win?" he asks. "Cuccinelli in a landslide. There it is. There's the problem. Except the real problem is, they don't see it as a problem."
- Opinion: Should Chris Christie’s Weight Be an Issue?
- Republicans Playing 'Russian Roulette' on Gun Reform
- Presidency Column: From Turmoil to Stability