Republicans won some and lost some in last night’s off-year elections, but the results were an unmitigated disaster for the Tea Party.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie’s thumping reelection victory thrusts him into the forefront of the GOP’s 2016 nomination race. Christie is the Tea Party’s nemesis, one of the few prominent Republicans not cowed by its demands for ideological purity. In demonstrating cross-over appeal in a resolutely blue state, Christie shows Republicans how to regain their competitiveness in presidential elections. His approach, of course, collides headlong into the Tea Party’s formula for maximum political polarization.
Especially stinging for the Tea Party was Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat in Virginia, now a key swing state. Some conservatives take solace in Cuccinelli’s late surge, which they attribute to his decision to make the race a referendum on Obamacare. It’s just as likely, however, that the close finish reflected shallow support for his opponent, political neophyte and Clinton pal Terry McAuliffe. In fact, Cuccinelli may have hurt himself by injecting the ideologically charged issue of Obamacare into a governor’s race, which usually turns on more prosaic, state-level priorities like transportation and education. Some analysts think the GOP-engineered government shutdown, which evidently drove enraged federal workers to the polls, may have been a bigger factor in the McAuliffe’s win.
Nonetheless, some conservatives complain that Republicans “betrayed” Cuccinelli by investing little in his campaign, allowing McAuliffe to outspend him by a significant margin. And in an ominous sign of a widening fissure within the GOP coalition, some key business allies also declined to put much money into Cuccinelli’s campaign.
However they spin their loss, Republicans know Virginia is a state they should have won. They faced a weak opponent and enjoyed a strong tailwind from President Obama’s drooping approval rating, as well as Virginia’s well-established habit of voting against the party that won the previous year’s presidential election. Had they nominated a more mainstream Republican, like Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, they likely would have held Richmond.
Finally, the Tea Party also was rebuffed in another closely-watched race in Alabama. In the Republican runoff for Alabama’s First Congressional District, business and party leaders rallied behind Bradly Byrne, who beat back a challenge from Tea Party favorite Dean Young. From the standpoint of the civil war erupting within the Republican Party, this was the most telling result of the night. It showed how thoroughly disenchanted the GOP establishment, including business, have grown with the Tea Party’s radical rejection of compromise and the normal give and take of governing.
It’s one thing for a certified extremist like Cucinnelli to fall short in purple Virginia. But when Tea Party heroes start losing primaries in crimson Alabama, it’s a stronger signal that the GOP’s extremist tide is receding.