Let’s get one thing straight. Neither of these two elections had anything to do with policy positions. Both Christie and Cuccinelli are Republicans and, despite what some pundits keep saying, conservative Republicans. Both are pro-life and both are beholden to the same supply-side drivel that has been thoroughly and soundly dismissed by most economists.
The difference is how both men handled the Tea Party. Cuccinelli was virtually tied at the hip to it; Christie did everything possible to distance himself from it. That was it in a nutshell. In every way imaginable, both campaigns were polar opposites of each other in both tactics and temperament. The reason you never saw Sarah Palin at a Christie rally is because Christie didn’t want her there. In fact, the only time Palin visited New Jersey was to campaign for her pal, Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, who got trounced by Cory Booker in last month’s special election.
It was only four years ago that both states flipped from blue to red in what was hailed by many as a harbinger of things to come. The emergence of the Tea Party that year led to a wave election in the 2010 midterms that saw Republicans take back the House and net gains in the Senate. But ever since, the Tea Party has done everything possible to give back the mojo they had. Two near debt-ceiling defaults, a government shutdown and 42 attempted repeals of a healthcare law passed by Congress, signed by a sitting president and upheld by the Supreme Court was simply too much to overcome for Cuccinelli.
The lesson here for the GOP is undeniable. The four-year run of the Tea Party has now come to an end. For all intents and purposes, it has become the political equivalent of a toxic waste dump. For the national party to be taken seriously going forward, it must abandon the fairytale that the path to victory lies in nominating candidates with extreme positions who refuse to compromise. If there is anyone at the RNC who seriously believes either Ted Cruz or Rand Paul has a shot at the White House in 2016 they must be smoking from the same crack pipe as Toronto mayor Robert Ford.
But if Republicans need to do some soul searching in the weeks ahead, Democrats should refrain from doing any gloating. This was a referendum on the Tea Party, period. The results in New Jersey prove that an establishment Republican can win in a blue state. Please spare me all the “Democrats phoned it in” claims and “Barbara Buono was a flawed candidate” nonsense. When it comes to flawed candidates, Terry McAuliffe takes the cake. Flawed candidates win all the time. Need I remind anyone that George W. Bush managed to win reelection in 2004? The truth is that had the Virginia GOP nominated a more “reasonable” candidate, the state would still be red today. When you outspend your opponent by a 2 to 1 margin and you barely win by two and a half points, that’s hardly reassuring. McAuliffe didn’t so much win as Cuccinelli lost.
As of right now, the biggest advantage Democrats have going into the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential campaign is that they’re not Republicans. While that’s encouraging if you’re a Democratic strategist, by no means is it a glowing tribute. I have long maintained that if the GOP ever cleaned up its act and decided to reclaim its past, it could present problems for the Democratic Party. The Christie win in New Jersey confirms that belief.
Mark my words, if the Obama Administration doesn’t resolve the issues with the Affordable Care Act soon, those issues could play a major role in next year’s midterms. And if the Republicans actually manage to exorcize the Tea Party and find the courage to nominate a Christie-like candidate to run for president in 2016, Democrats will have their hands full.