With one blowout victory and one avoidable loss, the results of yesterday's gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia are a study in contrast for Republicans invested in winning elections.
The Republican Party needs a fresh approach to winning elections and knows it. This spring, the Republican National Committee released the "Growth and Opportunity Project Report" – more commonly known these days as the "autopsy" – outlining how Republicans might soon return to victory.
The report notes that "it is time for Republicans on the federal level to learn from successful Republicans on the state level … time to smartly change course, modernize the Party, and learn once again how to appeal to more people."
It was not long ago that Virginia was home to the model for victory-hungry Republicans to emulate. In 2009, Republican candidate Bob McDonnell ran as "the jobs governor" and, in a state that voted for Barack Obama by six points, McDonnell went on to win the state by 18. Exit polls showed McDonnell with a two-to-one advantage among independents and sizable margins with female voters and the young. Perhaps all was not lost for Republicans running in Obama territory.
Four years later, Virginia is a different story. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, hailed as a conservative darling, lost to the deeply flawed Democratic operative Terry McAuliffe, performing poorly amongst most voters who were not white, male or already Republican. Cuccinelli's strategy focused on speaking to his own base through conservative news outlets or taking swings at McAuliffe's target-rich record, never really trying to define himself or to convey his message beyond the usual audiences.
The strategy did not succeed. Democrats outnumbered Republicans by five points according to the exit polls, an extraordinary shift from 2009 when Republicans held a four-point lead in turnout over the Democrats. In this environment, the old model of "win the base and destroy the opponent" appeared to be past its prime.
This time around, New Jersey - a state where President Obama blew Gov. Mitt Romney out of the water by a 17-point margin – is the new great hope of the GOP. Christie defeated Barbara Buono by 22 points, a dramatic shift even from Christie's modest victory over then Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009. Among women, Christie held a double-digit lead. Among independents, he won by nearly two-to-one. While Buono narrowly edged out Christie among voters under age 30, Christie won a majority of Hispanic voters. Even among African-Americans, among whom 96 percent voted for President Obama in 2012, Christie picked up one out of five voters. All this in an electorate where exit polls estimated less than three out of 10 of voters called themselves Republicans – even fewer than in 2009 when Christie was first elected.
Christie's jaw-dropping numbers are no accident, and not just the product of effective disaster response management or a lackluster opponent. His strategy explicitly included pursuing constituencies that Republicans traditionally fail to persuade. His campaign often went to black neighborhoods or to small businesses in Latino communities. Of the many ads the Christie campaign ran, few addressed his opponent at all, instead focusing on the case for why Christie was the right man for the job.
"Win the base and destroy the opponent" couldn't have been further from how Christie pursued his re-election campaign. The results are dramatic.
Some will point out, rightly, that the New Jersey and Virginia races differed in more than just candidates and strategy. Christie effectively managed the response to a natural disaster while Cuccinelli struggled to distance himself the ethics troubles of McDonnell. Christie has enjoyed an enormous fundraising advantage over his opponent and has had the luxury of boosting his own brand on the air, while Cuccinelli suffered from the lopsided engagement of outside groups and saw the flow of campaign dollars dry up as election day neared. Yet even before Christie was up on the airwaves with paid advertising, his polling numbers were turning heads, and outside groups were not without reason to look skeptically at Cuccinelli's candidacy.
It is critical to note that this isn't just a matter of ideology or centrism; Chris Christie is conservative on not just fiscal but social issues. As we will no doubt hear in coming months, Christie is strongly pro-life and initially pushed back on same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Christie's re-election was not a foregone conclusion. His absolute domination among voter groups where Republicans struggle nationally – much less in a solidly blue state – is a wake-up call.
Republicans have a hard road ahead if they want to win elections nationally, and they need to broaden their coalition in order to have a fighting chance of re-taking the White House in the near future. Re-trenching, exciting the conservative base and bashing Democrats will only get the Republican Party so far. Republicans hungry for victory should look to the Christie model of effective governance and effective campaigning as proof that it is not only possible to win as a Republican in tough territory, it is possible to win big.
Corrected 11/6/13: The post originally misstated by how much Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Virginia.