A set of off-year elections Tuesday in three states could offer the first clues of a way forward for Republicans still staggering from consecutive presidential defeats and divided by a growing rift between the establishment and tea party wings of the GOP.
The two biggest races are expected to render a split verdict. Barring huge upsets, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is expected to romp to reelection in New Jersey, positioning him for an anticipated 2016 White House run, while former national Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe is expected to win the open governor's seat in Virginia.
A McAuliffe victory would snap a decades-old streak, in which the party of the president has lost the Virginia governorship in every contest since 1977. President Obama campaigned Sunday on McAuliffe's behalf, after it appeared the Democrat had broken open the race against Republican Atty. Gen. Ken Cuccinelli.
A third significant election Tuesday pits a Republican candidate with blue-chip business and political backing, Bradley Byrne, against a tea party insurgent, Dean Young, in a runoff for an Alabama congressional seat vacated when the GOP incumbent stepped down for a new job. Polls suggest the race is too close to call.
There is risk in drawing overly broad conclusions from political contests held in the off-season, when turnout is usually sparse and factors unique to a specific candidate or geographic locale can take on outsized import.
Off-year elections in 2005 and 2009 foreshadowed success for Democrats and Republicans, respectively, in the mid-term elections that followed. Not so, however, in 2001, when Democrats won the statehouses in New Jersey and Virginia, but Republicans gained seats in both the House and Senate the next year.
"These are three very different contests, different kinds of choices, different kinds of voters and it's hard to generalize," Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan guide to elections nationwide, said of the races in Alabama, New Jersey and Virginia.
Still, many of the issues raised in those contests — including the tea party-led shutdown of the federal government and the fumbling launch of the insurance marketplace under Obama's sweeping healthcare initiative — are likely to carry over and be fiercely debated in 2014, when control of the House and Senate are at stake.
In Alabama, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alone has spent nearly $200,000 to elect Byrne, who has served as a state senator and chancellor of the state's community college system. "I don't agree with a lot of the people in Washington and a lot of the things they do," Byrne said during a recent debate. But, he said, "At the end of the day, if we're not talking to each other, we can't solve many problems."
Young countered by cheering the government shutdown, vowed never to raise the federal debt ceiling and criticized attempts to work across the aisle with Democrats. "I need you to send a message to America," he said, "that we don't want to send another politician up there who's being supported by the same old people, to do the same old things."
The intraparty fight to represent the Mobile area reflects a dynamic likely to play out in a number of GOP primaries next year, where establishment-backed Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — are facing challenges from tea party-backed rivals.
"Alabama is Ft. Sumter," said Charlie Cook, another nonpartisan campaign analyst. "The first battle of the civil war in the Republican Party."
The two statewide races, in New Jersey and Virginia, will be read for broader hints relating to the presidential contest in 2016.
Christie, who faced little competition from his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, is hoping for a sizable double-digit win as a way to burnish his national credentials, a reelection strategy pursued by Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 1998 and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2006 as each eyed an eventual run for president.
Christie is also expected to make the case that his political pragmatism and relative centrist positioning is not just a winning (albeit necessary) strategy in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, but also a model for Republicans nationwide, who cannot retake the White House without strong support from independents and cross-over Democrats.
Yet the most meaningful results Tuesday, to the extent they apply, are likely to come from Virginia, which has emerged as a national political bellwether and a toss-up state on a par with the traditional battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida.
McAuliffe has hammered Cucinelli over the government shutdown, which hit Virginia especially hard, given its proximity to Washington, as well as his conservative stance on social issues, which has boosted the Democrat's lead among women voters, a vital constituency.
"Ken Cuccinelli has spent his career creating gridlock from the political fringe," McAuliffe said during a Sunday appearance with Obama. "The question in this election is simple: Will the mainstream, bipartisan majority in Virginia be drowned out by the tea party?"
Cuccinelli, who filed an unsuccessful suit to block the 2010 Affordable Care Act, has sought to make the governor's race an explicit referendum on the president's plan.
"I say to Virginia, let's send them a message and say no tomorrow to Obamacare," Cuccinelli said at an election-eve rally Monday outside Washington.
Lisa Mascaro of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun