Tuesday was election day, and with the 2016 presidential campaign already under way, political analysts are busy reading the tea leaves from this year's balloting. It seems that moderation was the winner and the tea party brand the big loser.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won re-election in a landslide. His combination acceptance and 2016 presidential campaign kickoff speech emphasized his track record as a Republican executive - with a Democratic legislature - able to work across the aisle, embrace and thank President Obama for the support his state received in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and his skill making government work for the people.
New Jersey voters rewarded Christie more for his comity than for his conservative political views. His re-election establishes him as the establishment Republicans' frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination two years from now.
In Alabama's First Congressional District, establishment conservative Bradley Byrne and tea party conservative Dean Young battled for their party's nomination to fill the seat vacated by retiring Rep. Jo Bonner. Young is cast in the mold of Allan West and Louis Gohmert: take-no-prisoners, uncompromising radical right-wing hardliners. This district is one of the reddest in the country, so the Republican primary's winner is sure of a congressional seat. Byrne's victory means that Alabamans will replace one mainstream conservative with another. It suggests that even in crimson Alabama, the tide has turned against the radical right's destructive influence on national politics.
Closer to home, Virginia voters had to choose between a weak Democratic candidate and a far right wing Republican. Tea party fatigue helped lift Democrat Terry McAuliffe to a narrow victory over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, who made every one of its ideas his very own. McAuliffe's resume is rather thin, consisting mostly of being a very good fund-raiser, a venture capitalist and not much else, lacking experience in elective office, either as a legislator or an executive. To judge the candidates by their records, one would think Cuccinelli had the inside track. But his extremism and questionable ethical conduct while serving as state Attorney General were just too much for Virginia's voters.
His views on the government shutdown, immigration, women's rights, birth control, climate change, gay rights and even divorce were so far out of the political and social mainstream that McAuliffe's campaign effortlessly painted him as being completely out of touch with the electorate. McAuliffe's message, like Christie's, was to bridge party differences, not to broaden them. As with virtually every other race this year, voters listened to what they heard as the voices of moderation and making government work.
Tea party apologists were quick to blame Cuccinelli's loss on anything but his extremism. They accused the mainstream Republican Party of betraying their candidate just to discredit the movement. Rush Limbaugh said, "In Virginia the GOP simply didn't want a tea party candidate winning there. They just didn't." But the Republican Governors Association found $8.5 million to float his campaign, hardly the act of a group hell-bent on seeing him lose. The Republican National Committee chipped in $3 million more. National tea party heavies Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio endorsed his candidacy and, in varying degrees, campaigned for him. Those hardly seem like acts of betrayal to me.
In the past, the extreme right argued that Republican candidates needed to be more ideologically pure, more uncompromising, more demanding, and that candidates like Mitt Romney didn't win because they were imperfect messengers; that cannot be said of Cuccinelli. The fact is that right-wing conservatism has been shown to be a political liability in Virginia and elsewhere.
The GOP is at a crossroad. It can choose the tea party path or the mainstream conservatives' way. It cannot do both. Any pragmatist would look at recent election results and have no difficulty recognizing what doesn't work. But extremist ideologues and true believers are lousy pragmatists.