In politics, it’s always hard to read the tea leaves and determine what off-year elections mean. This year was especially difficult as we were coming off the government shutdown and the fiasco of the Obamacare website rollout. With many people around the nation thinking a pox on all your houses, there were still those who believed that some races could hold messages for both next year’s mid-term elections and even the 2016 presidential election. Looking at the results I am not sure they did.
On Tuesday, Democrats in Virginia had a good day. For the first time since 1974, Virginians elected a governor, Terry McAuliffe, from the same party as the president and it looks like they will sweep the top three offices including lieutenant governor and attorney general. The attorney general race is still up in the air and at the time I write this the Democrat is leading by about 500 votes but it appears there will be a mandated recount.
The GOP losses are a big defeat for the Tea Party. But many moderate Republicans had jumped ship in advance of the election and Ken Cuccinelli campaigned with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ken.), former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and local right-wing Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to no avail. It appears from exit polling that the health reform rollout kept the loss from being bigger.
New Jersey Republicans had a more moderate (though still pro-life, anti-union, and anti-gay marriage) candidate in Gov. Chris Christie. He soundly defeated the Democrat by more than 20 percent in a lopsided victory. According to the bloviators on CNN (Alex Castellanos, Andrew Sullivan and Newt Gingrich) Christie will use this big win to catapult him into contention for the Republican nomination in 2016. But many observers agree that Christie will have a hard time taking his brand of in-your-face bullying politics to Iowa and the South. Southerners tend to be more genteel even if they are trying to stab you in the back. While it appears to have been good for Christie’s re-election campaign in New Jersey to be seen with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy and on the stage with Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global initiative, that may not go over well with the ultra-conservative voters who still predominate in most of the Republican primaries.
Then there was the Republican primary race in Alabama. The day before the primary, Sean Sullivan wrote in a column for the Washington Post, “The long-running battle for the heart and soul of the national Republican Party will play out here on Tuesday in the form of a nasty little House special-election primary, pitting business-oriented establishment Republicans against angry and energized tea party insurgents who have become a dominant voice in the GOP.” This statement was made about the primary contest between the candidate of choice for the business community and more moderate Republicans, Bradley Byrne; and the Tea Party choice Dean Young. Byrne won and this may bode well as Sullivan suggested when he wrote, “A Byrne victory would lend momentum to an effort by the Republican establishment to wrest control of the GOP from the tea party faction, which has dominated the debate over the past three years. The battle is already on for other seats in 2014, including two in Michigan held by Reps. Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio, tea party favorites who have drawn primary challengers.”
Clearly this is a mixed bag for Republicans, with the Tea Party faithful saying that their candidates need to hold the line. Meanwhile, the Republican business community is setting the bar low for getting their support and endorsing candidates who simply say they are opposed to closing government and are willing to raise the debt ceiling.
It is always difficult to read much into off-year elections. McAuliffe was lucky that the government closing gave him momentum and that the Republicans put up the three most right-wing candidates ever nominated by the party in Virginia. Christie may be just a New Jersey phenomenon and a bully. Exit polling showed that even many of those who voted for him suggested they wouldn’t vote for him for president.
We will have to wait and see whether the issues of the government shutdown and the fiasco of the health care website rollout fade or continue to impact voters. That will depend on what Congress does in January with the budget and if the administration can fix the website and demonstrate that Obamacare really is as good as they claim.