In yesterday’s off-year elections for Governor, Chris Christie, a conservative Republican, coasted to a second term in blue state New Jersey while Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative, Tea Party leaning Republican Attorney General came up short against Terry McAuliffe in the purple-turning-blue state of Virginia. How one interprets the results of these two elections will determine whether or not Republicans will continue to wonder in the political wilderness for another four or eight years following the 2016 Presidential contest.
One would be hard pressed to write off Christie’s re-election as nothing more than a popular moderate (RINO) beating an unpopular and relatively unknown challenger. That would be a mistake. Christie cruised to an easy win, becoming the first Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988 to garner a majority of New Jersey’s votes in a statewide election. Christie’s message to Republicans nationwide is quite simple:
In the interview, Christie touted his conservative credentials and dished out some bipartisan criticism, saying the Republican Party needs to focus on winning elections, and slamming President Barack Obama for the mixed messages on the new health care law.
“I think the party cares more about winning the argument than winning the election, and if you don’t win elections you can’t govern.” (Interview with Jake Tapper, “Chris Christie aims to make history in New Jersey”) (emphasis added)
What a novel concept — “if you don’t (or can’t) win elections you can’t govern.” Virginia’s Republicans may or may not have figured that out by this morning. Ken Cuccinelli certainly didn’t figure that out, going the way of other Tea Party candidates in purple or blue states like Christine O’Donnell (the former witch and Tea Party darling in Maryland), Todd Akin (the “legitimate rape” wackadoodle in the Missouri Senate race in 2012), Richard Mourdock (his rape comment sunk his 2012 U.S. Senate candidacy in Indiana), and Sharon Angle (Nevada). How many times will Tea Party candidates rely on the “base” to win the election when the base is not what will ultimately win elections?
Cuccinelli is a prime example of doubling down on a losing Tea Party strategy, particularly in states outside the deep, red south:
In the homestretch of the race to become Virginia’s next governor, Republican Ken Cuccinelli shared a stage with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky whileDemocrat Terry McAuliffe rallied with former President Clinton. The contrast between the two headliners tells you a lot about why Cuccinelli is the underdog in Tuesday’s election. The state attorney general could look only to a Tea Party hero to help mobilize turnout. And that was the high point. In recent weeks, he’s dredged up C-list conservative celebrities with even less reach, such as radio talk-show host Mark Levin and the 19 Kids and Counting Duggar family. Meanwhile, McAuliffe has been palling around with a widely adored two-term president.” (“How Ken Cuccinelli Blew It”)
When you resort to pulling in the Duggars, you know that you have absolutely no chance of winning. And, while I like to listen (sparingly) to Mark Levin, he will not appeal to anyone outside the already committed base of the party. Outside of the south — Virginia, where I lived from 2002-2007, and Florida, my home state, are not really part of the deep south — Republican candidates who only appeal to the base will find themselves more and more on the short end of the electoral stick. Those candidates who, like the aforementioned ones who lost winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012, rely on the Tea Party for victory will also find themselves unable to govern because they are unable to win.
Like him or hate him, Chris Christie has shown that a Reagan conservative can win in the bluest of blue states. That doesn’t mean abandoning conservative principles, but it does mean graciously communicating those principles in such a way that people are attracted to — and not repealed by — a particular candidate. Much like Republican Governor Susana Martinez in my own blue state of New Mexico (who, by the way, was the only current out-of-state office holder to campaign with Christie in NJ), Governor Christie is reaching out beyond the narrowing base of the Republican Party. And, he’s winning.
Republicans can continue to nominate fundamentalist candidates who win in red states like Texas and Kentucky, but who increasingly lose in the rest of the country. Conservatives, especially of the Tea Party variety, can continue to blow elections like Ken Cuccinelli did in Virginia yesterday. But, if conservatives — the true heirs of Ronald Reagan — want to take back government from the dastardly progressive Democrats, they will need to do what Al Davis, the legendary owner of the Oakland Raiders, once famously said, “Just win, baby!” If you can’t win, you can’t govern. I think that message will resonate with conservatives in flyover country, even if it is spoken with a Jersey accent.