It's a little late for any additional instant analysis of Tuesday's gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, but the pundits and prognosticators who are suggesting the results say a lot about the future of the Republican Party – particularly as it pertains to the 2016 presidential race – have it wrong.
The conventional wisdom is quickly coming together around the idea that the Republicans need to "moderate their message," because "conservative" Ken Cuccinelli lost in Virginia while "moderate" Chris Christie won in New Jersey. Let's dissect that a little.
Both are pro-life. Both strongly oppose, or at any rate did until very recently, the legalization of same-sex marriage. Both oppose Obamacare, with Cuccinelli having brought one of the first – if not the first – lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act once it was signed into law. Exit polling in Virginia, by the way, showed at least half of those who showed up to vote want the ACA repealed or at least delayed, which is probably what fueled the last minute surge toward the GOP candidate in the closing days of the race.
On economic issues, there's also less daylight between the two men than people seem to think. Christie has fought for some meaningful spending cuts and has taken on New Jersey's uber-power teachers' union, but he isn't, as yet anyway, a tax cutter. Cuccinelli originally supported outgoing GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell's record tax increase and refused to sign Americans for Tax Reform's pledge against raising taxes because, say those who purport to know, he had a tax reform plan in mind that would not have been revenue neutral and would have seen some taxes rise. Cuccinelli is solid on guns, but the gun issue is a winner in conservative Virginia. Christie supports some gun control measures and even signed a few into law that passed the Democrat-controlled New Jersey legislature, but that's a position consistent with the views of much of the state.
What actually determined the outcome of the two races were the singular personalities of the candidates on the GOP lines. Cuccinelli, who started throwing rough elbows against Republican moderates in the Virginia state Senate soon after joining that body as the result of a special election win, used his sharp-edged style to make himself a favorite of party conservatives. The problem is that he was never able to modify his style or his message in a way that convinced a majority of Virginians that he cared about them too. He ran a selfish race, virtually devoid of an "air war," he almost totally ignored his ticket-mates, he failed to develop a consistent theme for the general election – "I'm fighting Obamacare for YOU" might have been especially successful if he had started up with that meme in the spring and carried it through to the day healthcare.gov was first supposed to go live – and he tried to respond to the attacks he expected to come from the Democrats by moving to the middle of the road.
It's a strategy that failed on all fronts. What is truly surprising is that it almost succeeded, which probably says more about what the voters felt about incoming Gov. Terry McAuliffe than anything else. If voters in the commonwealth had really been persuaded that the GOP had become too extreme, as evidenced by the views attributed to its gubernatorial candidate, then the Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates would have been cut by more than one seat.
Christie also ran a selfish campaign, one that was not based on the fact that he is a Republican so much as it was that he is "a Jersey type of guy." For four years, he has been meeting the voters where they were, at football games, pushing for Hurricane Sandy relief, at Bruce Springsteen concerts and other places generally removed from partisan politics. To prove his potential presidential appeal, his team developed a campaign strategy designed to run his vote up as high as possible in what is generally considered a solidly blue state, rather than propose a series of reforms that might have garnered him a few more allies in the New Jersey legislature. One interesting side note is that despite his impressive win, the post-election polling shows he would still lose New Jersey to Hillary Rodham Clinton if they run against each other for president in 2016. Christie's popularity apparently had as little effect on down ballot races in his state as Cuccinelli's alleged unpopularity had on legislative contests in Virginia.
Candidates matter. In fact, they matter more than any other single factor in a campaign. Winning as a Republican if you are going to govern like a Democrat is as unhelpful to the GOP as it is to lose a race running as a conservative, if that's what Cuccinelli in fact did. The jury is still out on that one, given that most of the very few messages he bothered to send to voters until the end of the race were mixed.
The one thing we do know from the result of Tuesday's elections is that the unpopularity of Obamacare is almost enough to turn a losing candidate into a winning one. That should have the Democrats shaking in their boots going into 2014 and 2016. The new law is so ill conceived, so poorly executed and so misleadingly advertised that the voter's revulsion over what it is doing to their personal economy and the living standards of their families should produce quick changes to what is going on in Washington, at the least a one-year delay in the imposition of the individual mandate that in just three weeks has received strong bi-partisan support over Barack Obama's continued objections. Too many members of the president's party on Capitol Hill for the White House's liking are beginning to figure out that continuing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the administration on health care may lead to the voters cutting them off at the knees at the next available opportunity.