Based on the election results in New Jersey and Virginia, the Republicans have stark choices going forward: They can nominate candidates with crossover appeal - and win. Or they can continue to nominate right-wing extremists - and lose.
Reality was evident Tuesday night in the numbers. Chris Christie, the landslide New Jersey gubernatorial winner, got 57 percent of women voters, 48 percent of Hispanic voters, 32 percent of Democratic voters, and 21 percent of black voters, because he didn’t run for re-election as an extremist ideological warrior.
Meanwhile, voters in Virginia rejected GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken “The Cooch” Cuccinelli. In astronaut lingo, The Cooch screwed the pooch. He was defeated because the vote-rich suburban Washington counties correctly viewed him as a tea party extremist - a climate-change denier, an aspiring Planned Parenthood defunder, an anti-abortion absolutist who believes that impregnated rape and incest victims should be forced to give birth. Virginia, formerly a reliable red state, has turned purple because the increasingly populous, racially diverse northern suburbs now mirror America. That’s where the votes are. A far-right conservative can’t get those votes. That too is a lesson for 2016.
In short, pragmatism (as practiced by Christie) can win. Purity (as personified by Cuccinelli) cannot.
Naturally, conservative activists are already spinning their own message about Virginia. They argue that ideological purity is actually alive and well, citing the fact that Clinton family pal Terry McAuliffe defeated Cuccinelli by only 2.5 points despite the Democrat’s 4-1 money advantage. The far-right spinners say that Cuccinelli nearly won because he campaigned vociferously against Obamacare during the website meltdown, and that if only the guy had had a couple more weeks, he would’ve eked past McAuliffe at the finish line. It’s the usual loser’s lament: coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Fact is, a more centrist Republican candidate - somebody with crossover appeal - might well have ridden an Obamacare backlash to victory. But not The Cooch; the tea party’s fave was too toxic for an increasingly mainstream electorate. Indeed, the exit polls told the tale. Only 28 percent of statewide voters said they supported the tea party. 60 percent said that abortion should be legal; McAuliffe got two-thirds of those voters. 44 percent of the electorate self-identified as “moderate.” And most notably, 51 percent of the electorate was female - and McAuliffe won them by nine points, the same point advantage that President Obama posted among Virginia women one year ago.
And it was clear, in the final month of polling, that Cuccinelli was hurt by the Republican shutdown in Washington. His fellow ideologues across the river did him no favors - and he did himself no favors by bringing in shutdown impresario Ted Cruz to campaign at his side. Goodbye, moderate voters.
Down ballot, the damage to the right-wing brand was even worse. Cuccinelli’s running mate, the Rev. E. W. Jackson, was soundly beaten (in Virginia, the lieutenant governor is listed separately on the ballot) - and for reasons that should be self-evident. Republican extremists ought to realize that, in a purple state, it’s downright nuts to nominate a candidate who says out loud that yoga meditation is the work of Satan. As Republican strategist John Feehery noted the other day, Jackson’s “flamboyant and erratic statements...including a particular statement about how kids with Downs Syndrome are a message from God about sin...(are) not very helpful for a Republican party that is trying to appeal to more rational voters.”
Is Chris Christie’s template - occasionally working with Democrats and blasting D.C. “dysfunction” - a more rational way to reach more rational voters? Probably. But conservative activists, who are wary of Christie, can argue that his landslide win was just Jersey-centric, that Jersey voters are in sync with a powerful personality that might not play well elsewhere. And even though Christie and his boosters will cite his blue-state blowout as proof of his national electability, skeptics can cite the exit poll results; when Jersey’s voters were asked about 2016, they chose Hillary over Christie by six points.
But at least he showed how the GOP can supersede ideology and grow beyond its shrinking older-white-guy base. At minimum, the party in ‘16 sorely needs a candidate who can blunt the growing Democratic suburban advantage in key states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Colorado. And for now, Christie’s blue-state win and Cuccinelli’s swing-state loss will surely embolden the beleaguered Republican establishment in its efforts to rescue the party from its crazy caucus. Let the brawling begin.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at email@example.com.