Do gubernatorial elections point to midcourse correction for GOP?
Tuesday's landslide re-election of Republican Gov. Chris Christie in the Garden State, and the narrower election of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Old Dominion, together are said to augur a decline of the conservative tea party and a swing back toward progressive politics.
Ken Cuccinelli, who harbored the ugliest aspects of his party's extreme right wing.
The tough and rough-edged Christie persona provided a comfortable match in blue-state Jersey, where he fit to a tee the fictional Godfather image of the straight-talking, take-no-prisoners wiseguy. His repeated trips to seaside towns still lifting themselves out of the debris of Hurricane Sandy cemented his reputation as the champ of the average Joe.
Against a weak Democratic foe, Christie continued to benefit from his astute embrace of President Obama on federal relief to the shore towns during the 2012 presidential race. Christie's reach-out then demonstrated nonpartisanship amid a local crisis, and a year later it bridged the normal interparty gap and gave him sweeping re-election.
In Virginia, Cuccinelli's reputation as hostile on social issues cherished by women voters (not just abortion rights but contraception as well) and his conspicuous tea party support kept him on the defensive. His late effort to make the gubernatorial election a referendum on Obama's health-care law appears to have tightened the race somewhat, but not enough to change the outcome.
Inevitably, Christie's 60 percent share of the New Jersey vote will elevate expectations of his presidential bid in 2016. He emerges at least temporarily at the head of a not particularly inspiring Republican field. But with that will come intensified scrutiny of his policy credentials to run as an anti-tea party candidate moving the GOP to more moderate ground.
In a rather perverse way, Christie may be obliged, as Mitt Romney was, to mask his previous ideological identity upon entering the presidential arena. In the run-up to the 2012 race, the previously moderate Romney had to don a more conservative cloak to survive the Republican primaries in which tea party money and supporters played a critical role.
If Christie runs for president in 2016, he may need his conservative track record, such as his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, to carry him through the primaries. At the same time, if nominated he will be obliged to defend establishment Republicanism from tea party excesses in the social realm in the general election.
As the prospective chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie will have a useful platform for broadening his exposure around the country and peddling the party's power at the state level to influence national policy. But he will have to do so amid the GOP's own identity crisis over a divisive drift to excessive conservatism.
The fierce Republican opposition to Obamacare, recently fanned by the technological nightmare at the Healthcare.gov website, threatens to overlay the political discussion next year through the 2014 midterm elections. If so, the tea party faction in the forefront of the fight against Obamacare will have a lifeline against moderate efforts to move the party more to the center.
Christie, by virtue of his demonstrated ability to win Democratic votes in a strong blue state, has positioned himself to put a new face on his Republican Party badly in need of a makeover. But in the process he invites a determined Democratic attempt to cast him as a true conservative hiding behind the mask of his take-charge charisma.
At the very least, Christie's strong re-election in New Jersey, coupled with the repudiation of the tea party candidate in Virginia, should heighten public interest in the internal Republican search for its identity. So far this year, it has been dominated by an equally flamboyant but divisive figure in Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, not a particularly hopeful sign for GOP unity.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.)
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