WASHINGTON — Voters sent the tea party reeling Tuesday as its star candidate lost a winnable Virginia governor’s race Tuesday while Gov. Chris Christie won big in New Jersey.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli ran a closer-than-expected race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, an important swing state test for the grassroots conservatives, but still fell short. The result was a vivid reminder that the tea party has become a movement with largely regional—and limited national—appeal.
Cuccinelli was a model of what the tea party had eagerly sought, a feisty, unapologetic believer with a sterling resume. Name the issue, and he was leading their crusade: limits on abortion clinics, the first state attorney general to file suit against the hated Affordable Care Act, challenging a researcher over climate change work.
And yet Cuccinelli struggled from start to finish in a race Republicans should have won easily, up against a flawed Democratic candidate in a state with a steady history of voting against the party in the White House, in this case Democratic President Barack Obama.
Christie, on the other hand, cruised to a big victory in New Jersey, a state that gave Obama 58 percent of its votes last year and last month elected Democratic Sen. Cory Booker in a special election race that was never close. Christie demonstrated broad appeal, as polls found him doing well Tuesday among independents, women, racial minorities and others who Republicans have had trouble attracting.
Tea party loyalists tend to loathe Christie. He embraced Obama last year after Superstorm Sandy ravaged New Jersey, and he has downplayed his conservative stands on social issues.
Facing a loss in one swing state and never a factor in another, tea party loyalis ts looked to the Deep South for victory Tuesday, as one of their own – real estate developer Dean Young – battled former state Sen. Bradley Byrne for an Alabama Republican congressional nomination.
In Virginia, the tea party looked to reclaim the state that had been reliably Republican for decades, but which started to embrace Democrats in recent elections.
Virginia has long had a strong social conservative wing, and the tea party appeared to thrive in certain pockets of the state. Virginia’s gubernatorial campaigns often preview what’s to come around the country. And its voters often send messages: Until this year, the party in the White House had lost the race nine straight times.
This year’s race unfolded as Obama became vulnerable. First came reports the Internal Revenue Service was targeting conservative groups and news about National Security Agency eavesdropping. The summer brought Obama’s decision, and then indecision, on military action against Syria. The fall featured the botched launch of the Obamacare website.
Cuccinelli had another advantage: McAuliffe, dogged by controversial business deals, was hardly a favorite in his own party. Pre-election polls had suggested McAuliffe had built a comfortable lead, and Cuccinelli was badly outspent—yet lost largely because McAuliffe swamped the Republican in suburban Washington, D.C. counties. The 16-day government shutdown last month, which had a large impact on the state, stole the spotlight from Cuccinelli’s bid to make opposition to the Affordable Care Act a major issue, and incumbent Gov. Bob McDonnell’s ethical troubles took the once-popular Republican governor out of the campaign.
More important, Cuccinelli could never shed that tea party label. It hurt. Pluralities of voters rejected the tea party and branded themselves centrists. Exit polls showed more than four in 10 voters opposed the tea party, and they went 9 to 1 for McAuliffe. Forty-four percent of voters called themselves moderates, and they broke nearly 2 to 1 for McAuliffe.
The result mirrored the trouble the tea party has had in general elections. The roughly 4-year-old movement has never been able to duplicate its 2010 success, when it was at least partly responsible for electing 87 Republican freshmen to the House of Representatives, enough to give the party a majority it still holds.
The successes were limited, however. Tea party candidates, for example, have proved too extreme to win winnable general elections in swing states such as Delaware, Missouri and Nevada.
The movement’s House bloc, while influential, has been unable to affect real policy change. Its reputation in so-called blue, or Democratic-leaning states, and swing states, has been toxic, and polls find support for the tea party is weak.
Cuccinelli never inched away from his political roots, insisting to the end that his campaign should be read as a referendum on Obama, big government, cronyism and the health care law.
That fighting-man strategy had worked so well for so long, it was hard for him to stop.
And he knew how to play politics. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who by Virginia tradition should have been the next in line for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, probably would have won a primary and would have started a general election race as a solid favorite. But the tea party pushed for a nominating convention, a tactic that favors activists – and Cuccinelli.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, who has launched an ambitious effort to change the party’s image in search of votes, spent Tuesday night in New Jersey. Christie was expected not only to win big, but to have good showings in every important demographic group.
In fact, said Rutgers-Eagleton Poll Director David Redlawsk, “Christie’s efforts to court black and Hispanic voters seem to be paying off much better than might have been expected.”
Regardless of the results, don’t look to the tea party to embrace candidates such as Christie in search of victory.
Christie polls in the teens nationally when Republicans are asked their preferences for the 2016 presidential nomination, not an impressive showing in a field where everyone else is more conservative.
And the intraparty split was hardly resolved Tuesday. “There’s going to have to be a knock-down, drag-out fight at some point to settle this,” said Brad Coker, managing director at Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Florida.