As journalists across the country struggle to put meaning to the Virginia and New Jersey races that occurred earlier this week, I see five lessons Republicans of all stripes need to learn quickly – as in, before any more elections are held.
1) Campaign like an amateur, lose to a Clinton goon: Did the Republican Party give up on Ken Cuccinelli too early? Perhaps, although it couldn't exactly have planned for the Obamacare launch to go so cosmically bad. Was the Libertarian candidate a stalking horse? Also perhaps, but he appears to have drawn votes roughly equally from Cuccinelli and former Clinton bagman and now Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe.
But, even though McAuliffe was a dog with serious and well-known fleas, Cuccinelli's truly hapless campaign allowed the Democrat to paint their man as an extremist and a brigadier general in the War on Women. It's not the issues that must be thrown overboard to win – equally pro-life Chris Christie captured 60 percent of the vote in even-bluer New Jersey, and Bob McDonnell dominated four years earlier on a firm pro-life platform. It is that voters sensed Cuccinelli was distancing himself from his own issues. If he didn't want to be near them, they didn't either.
2) Christie is a 2016 GOP presidential frontrunner: It wasn't just that Christie won and by a big margin on Tuesday. It was how he did it. His support increased 10 percent among men from 2009 and 12 percent among women. He was up 11 points with white voters, 12 with black voters and 19 points – enough to give him a 51-45 edge overall – among Hispanics. He was up in every age category, at every level of education and at all income levels. His support jumped 22 percent among liberals and 24 percent among Democrats.
This is, for now, a well-liked politician in his home state, and, judging from the attacks hurled his way from fellow Republicans within a day of the polls closing, his fellow 2016 primary contenders have grown concerned. It remains to be seen how well he plays south of Washington, D.C., and the negative ads that show him hugging President Obama are not hard to imagine. But he has proven that a positive message, a reputation as a problem solver and some ability to grow the base can lead to impressive electoral results.
3) Obamacare likely will be "the issue" in the 2014 midterms: And it could propel Republicans to control of the Senate. McAuliffe had a double-digit lead when the ObamaCare debacle began to unfold. By Election Day, it was down to 3 percent. The website fiasco grabs headlines, but the underlying problems – millions of Americans being forced out of their current plans into more expensive plans with features they do not believe they need – will not go away. Byron York of the Washington Examiner has the question right: Will this help more people than it hurts? If his math is right, this could be a problem for Democrats for years to come.
That said, cheering for its failure is not a viable strategy. Republicans must offer ideas on growing the economy, modernizing entitles, reforming immigration and shoring up education and energy policy.
4) Republicans better figure it out in Virginia because Virginia will be key to winning in 2016: If Hillary Clinton indeed becomes the 2016 Democratic nominee, she likely starts with 247 electoral votes out of the chute, which means she needs only 23 more to get to 270. This means there will be only a handful of states in play, and Republicans must capture an "inside straight" of Florida, Virginia, Ohio and Colorado to reach 270.
5) Former Raiders Owner Al Davis Is right: "Just win, baby!": At some point, if Republicans want to win again, the tea party v. establishment snipe-fest must end. To be sure, the tea party can teach the establishment some things about arguing from principle, and the establishment can teach the tea party some things about avoiding blind alleys. But the truth is they agree on far more than they disagree, and conveniently, the main policy point on which all agree is Obamacare. Not one Republican voted for it, and nearly all are committed on record to its complete repeal. If Republicans can rally around this point and develop a cohesive way out, they actually could bring about its demise.