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Reading the Tea Leaves in Tuesday


Many pundits have drawn firm conclusions from gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey this week. But while Terry McAuliffe and Chris Christie’s victories might indeed be early indicators of factors that will impact both the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential race, let’s take a deeper look at what their races really revealed.

Let’s start with Virginia. McAuliffe, a millionaire banker, former DNC chair and top-tier Clintonite, is as much of a “political insider” as a candidate can be. Over the last two decades, he’s also been one of the party’s most influential fundraisers, which means there are a lot of people who might feel they owe him a debt of gratitude. It shouldn’t be surprising that both Presidents Clinton and Obama made the short trip across the Potomac to stump for him.

He’s also a slick and articulate schmoozer who knows how to work a room and rally a crowd. All of that considered, McAuliffe winning a 3 point victory over the state’s little-known Attorney General – especially while enjoying a $15 million fundraising advantage – shouldn’t be a surprise, even in a state where any Dem winning the governor’s mansion seemed highly unlikely just a couple of years ago.

His opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, was an extreme social conservative, a Tea Party candidate who likely scared the crap out of Virginia’s female voters and didn’t get anything near the push from the GOP that McAuliffe got from his party. A lot of analysts are trying to figure out what Tuesday’s results say about the collective mood of voters in light of the government shutdown. However, Virginia might not be the best state to gauge such a measure, as its northern sector was one of the most deeply affected in terms of government employees.

Also, the colossal failures of the website for the federal health insurance exchange have likely offset public backlash toward the GOP, while engendering a we’re tired of all of you attitude among voters, which could help explain third-party candidate Robert Sarvis getting just under 7 percent of the vote – especially since Sarvis was running as a Libertarian and Cuccinelli as a “Tea Party” Republican, which is usually meant to suggest Libertarian leanings. Cuccunelli even had Libertarian icons Ron and Rand Paul campaigning for him, but a lot of people still found an alternative attractive.

Also, if you're thinking Sarvis merely split the Republican vote, guess again. Exit polling showed that he got nearly equal votes from Democrats and Republicans. That should say a lot to Dems who were puzzled by the defection of a sizable contingent of their typically solid youth vote to the elder Paul's camp in 2012, as they continue to see less value in the Democratic brand, while still largely viewing mainstream GOP policies as something worse.

So, let’s assume the website issues are fixed over the next month and ACA implementation goes relatively smooth going forward. We still have another possibility for a shutdown standoff early next year, along with plenty of other issues for either party to shoot themselves in the foot with. I’m just not convinced that either issue (this year’s shutdown or the launch of the exchange) will have any wind at their sails come next November.

What the Virginia race might best demonstrate is that there was no place in the race for a mainstream Republican. If it was a preview of anything, it might be most akin to a race between someone like Ted Cruz and say, Hillary Clinton. Clinton's luster has certainly faded with all but her most loyal base, and she comes with too much baggage (like deep ties to Wall Street) to be seen as anything more than another typical Democrat by those in the middle, and something much less than a rebel with a cause to the younger crowd.

Nonetheless, she's locked up many of the big Democratic donors and has an almost race-ready campaign apparatus that could suck the air out of a Democratic primary (though I'd be curious to see whether someone like Elizabeth Warren could give her a run). Match Clinton up against anyone from the far right, be it Cruz, Rubio or some Herman Cain-type candidate like maybe a Ben Carson, and the race would likely yield the same result we saw in Virginia, which wasn't that far off from 2012's presidential election, with Cruz or whoever hitting a ceiling that is lower than needed to win, despite getting a deeply passionate base good and roused.

Enter Chris Christie. What many mainstream pundits are trying to draw from his landslide victory in a dark blue state last week is the conclusion that Republicans need a mainstream candidate to have a shot at the White House – maybe even Christie himself. I agree with the first notion, if not the second, which I'll get into in a future column of why I think Christie's a long shot.

He does, however, paint a good picture of how a consistently conservative Republican can work with his opponents to get much of what he wants, most of the time – advancing his party's causes much more than folks who are willing to die on every hill, regardless of how flawed or downright impossible the fight may be.

In that regard, despite the Tea Party's claim to Ronald Reagan, Christie is more like the Gipper than any big-time Republican politician in recent memory. If the Obama presidency frustrates enough Americans who voted for the President in 2008 and 2012 to look for an alternative, it's not nearly as difficult to imagine those voters defecting to someone like Christie under the thinking that he would have a better chance to get things done in a polarized Washington based on his record in New Jersey, as it is to imagine them voting for candidates who deny global warming, want to repeal Roe v. Wade or supported a government default this fall.

Former Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio is so passionate about getting the party back on a mainstream course that he's heading a group called Main Street Advocacy, who will be pouring millions of dollars into the 2014 midterms in support of candidates who might help to offset the headline-grabbing extremists who he thinks can end up reducing the GOP to a mere “regional party.”

LaTourette, who came to Congress in the 1994 Contract with America wave, before retiring at the end of 2012, told NPR on Friday that while redistricting might guarantee Republicans a House majority through this decade, they will not win the big Senate races or Presidential campaigns until the party gets away from litmus tests and moves toward a more inclusive platform.

So, while 2014 isn't exactly around the corner and 2016 is a political lifetime away, Republicans are moving closer toward a moment many pundits – myself included – have been predicting for years: when the ability to survive a national GOP primary precludes you from having any chance to win a general election.

For their part, politicians like Cruz argue that since moving back toward the center at the end of the 2008 and 2012 primaries yielded losses, the answer is to instead move in the opposite direction. Demographics and polling suggest otherwise, but facts and reality have never got in the way of a good ideologue on either end of the political spectrum.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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