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An election with a message

While is it generally unwise to read too much into local elections from a handful of states, Tuesday's results produced a message writ too large to ignore. If Republicans want to win over swing voters, they'll need to produce candidates more like New Jersey's pragmatic Chris Christie than Virginia's tea party darling, Ken Cuccinelli II.

Governor Christie's 22-point win was as large and loud as the candidate himself. He won by a landslide in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by gaining the support from a remarkable number (at least by GOP standards) of women, blacks, Hispanics and young people, groups that usually produce big for Democratic candidates.

Mr. Cuccinelli, on the other hand, lost the Virginia governor's race to Terry McAuliffe, an unabashedly liberal Democrat known mostly as a fundraiser for Bill Clinton in a state where Republicans outnumber Democrats and control both legislative chambers. And he did it at a time when Democratic President Barack Obama is suffering his lowest-ever approval ratings and is being lambasted in the press daily for the failings of the Obamacare website and for the legions of people who are getting dropped from existing health insurance plans.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, a state that no one will construe as moderate, a much-watched GOP runoff to fill a vacant congressional seat saw the tea party candidate who likened himself to Sen. Ted Cruz and applauded the recent government shutdown lose to a mainstream business attorney who used to be the state's community college chancellor. Bradley Byrne beat Dean Young by appealing to people tired of political bomb-throwing.

Were there extenuating circumstances in all three races? Absolutely. Mr. Christie had the huge advantage that comes from being an incumbent running against a weak opponent. And voters in the Garden State could be confident that his more conservative positions would be blunted by Democratic majorities in the state legislature.

Virginia's political make-up has grown more centrist in recent years, and Mr. Cuccinelli's position on family-planning issues (he opposed abortion for victims of rape and incest and wanted to limit access to some forms of birth control) did not win him much support among women. Nor was it helpful that the federal government shutdown put tens of thousands of Virginians temporarily out of work. Mr. McAuliffe blasted away at those issues, and as recently as a few days ago, polls actually predicted a bigger win for the Democrat.

But those are mostly quibbles. This was an election that, given Mr. Obama's floundering ratings (below a 40-percent approval rating in the latest Gallup poll), should have been good for the tea party and wasn't. That's not to suggest it was good news for Democrats either, more likely a case of voters seeking a less objectionable path. Mr. McAuliffe's win was probably not a validation by Virginia voters of his rock-bottom rating from the NRA but more likely a judgment that he wasn't as abhorrent as Mr. Cuccinelli.

The question that remains, however, is whether the Republican Party will be able to take this election's message to heart. Mr. Christie is a likely presidential candidate in 2016, and he wasn't shy about it in his acceptance speech telling supporters, "I know that if we can do this in Trenton, N.J., maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now and see how it's done."

That Mr. Christie once embraced Mr. Obama in the wake of federal support for the New Jersey victims of Superstorm Sandy can be likely forgiven by GOP primary voters, but whether his willingness to compromise and his moderate positions on some issues — immigration, gun control and climate change to name a few — can be accepted is another story. What makes Mr. Christie so appealing to a broad audience may be the very thing that dooms him in the Republican primaries where voters customarily have a taste for conservative purity.

Of course, Democrats would be just as foolish to construe Tuesday's results as a leftward tilt. Only in New York, where Bill de Blasio has promised to raise taxes on the rich as the city's newly-elected mayor, can you make the case for a progressive message from voters, but Big Apple politics are hardly the best barometer for the national mood. From Alabama to New Jersey and likely beyond, it would appear most voters are wary of extremists of any stripe right now and prefer their candidates pro-business and practical.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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