Much Ado About Nothing: Christie vs. Cuccinelli

As Election Day 2013 approaches, there are only two races of interest to the political pundit class- the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia (with all apologies to the New York City mayoral race). The outcomes, despite the winners, will be analyzed and pulled apart and parsed because they are the only two games in town this year. Already, articles are appearing in the liberal media about what these outcomes foretell about the 2014 midterm elections.

In a previous post, based largely on analysis by Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, if past history is any indication, these races tell very little about what the immediate future holds. Yet, the mainstream media is currently claiming that the results will be indicative of Republican electoral success and the path to that success. The choices they claim are the conservatism of Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia versus the “pragmatism” of Chris Christie in New Jersey. Should Cuccinelli win, the theory goes, then the more conservative elements in the GOP- i.e., Tea Party- will be emboldened. If Cuccinelli loses and Christie wins, then moderate, bipartisan, pragmatic “establishment” Republicans are the path to electoral success.

First, let us dissect the New Jersey race. Simply put, Christie is a unique political character that appeals to New Jersey voters- both Republican and Democratic. As I have alluded to in the past, I work part-time in public education. When Christie was first elected in 2009, he was the most vilified and hated man in New Jersey among the more liberal elements in the public education establishment. Today, there is either acceptance of or ambivalence towards Christie among these very same people. The bloodshed and Armageddon Christie was to unleash upon public education failed to materialize. Today, I hear negative comments against Obama more than I hear negative comments against Christie. At worst, I hear that Christie is “not that bad.”

Many on the conservative side describe this as a “selling out” on Christie’s part. The poster picture for that notion is Christie’s embrace of Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. There was commentary on the budding “bromance.” Other factors leading some to this conclusion is New Jersey’s adoption of the Obama-endorsed educational core state standards (from personal experience, an unmitigated disaster in the making) and most recently his decision not to appeal the gay marriage ruling thus allowing same sex marriage in New Jersey. In turn, Christie did what any governor would have done in the aftermath of a natural disaster. We can debate whether he went overboard. The core state standards are disliked by teachers who find it confusing and obviously forcing a one size fits all curriculum and expectations on students. As for gay marriage, an appeal would have been costly for what probably would have been a loss. Despite his make over of the New Jersey Supreme Court, they are still rather liberal with a 75% chance gay marriage would have become a reality regardless. And if not, it would likely make the ballot in 2014 and be passed.

With regards to the race, Christie’s popularity in New Jersey is high for a Republican governor in a very blue state. It also cuts across ideological lines. However, this is attributable to the man and his style, not necessarily his beliefs and principles. Christie’s second term is almost a certainty because of that popularity and because of the weakness of his opponent, state senator Barbara Buono. Rather than using the outcome of the New Jersey race as an indicator for the 2014 midterms and a possible GOP strategy for future electoral success, it will be more interesting to see how he governs in a second term. With the albatross of running again for Governor removed from around his neck, will Christie tack to the right? If anything, this race will be more indicative of Christie’s 2016 aspirations rather than the 2014 midterm elections. He is poised to be the first Republican Governor of New Jersey to win with over 50% of the vote since Tom Kean did it in 1985.

A Christie win coupled with a Cuccinelli loss will be viewed by the liberal political pundit class as the preferred strategy for the GOP going forward. They will claim the Tea Party dead and that moderate Republicans are the key to success in the Northeast and West Coast. However, that is an obvious known fact without Christie in the equation. Except in very small discrete geographical areas, conservative Republicans have little chance of electoral success in states with a strong blue streak.

Virginia is qualitatively different from New Jersey on so many levels. New Jersey is a well-established blue state. They are one of the few states that gave Obama a greater share of the vote in 2012 than he received in 2008. Even when a the state votes for a Republican president, the margins are narrow. Given the choice between a superior Republican and an average Democrat, they will likely take that mediocre Democrat. They only go for the GOP when the Democrat is exceptionally inferior. Virginia, on the other hand, is a recently anointed swing state. Obama broke a Republican string of victories. However, more telling is the House make up of the Virginia delegation which is dominated by Republicans except in the districts surrounding the DC metro area.

The Virginia race does not involve an incumbent and never does because of their bizarre “one term and out” system. But, this year pits two relative political heavyweights against one another. There was no name recognition problem to begin their campaigns. Cuccinelli gained notoriety as one of the first state attorney generals to challenge Obamacare. Terry McAuliffe is known in Virginia through his role in the DNC and connections to the Clintons. There have been distractions along the way and hints of scandal on both sides that essentially should, if the media were balanced, even out. In short, the race has been nasty from the start and the “start” was a while ago.

There is one interesting fact about this race. Since 1977, the party in power in the White House has lost the Virginia gubernatorial race. Should McAuliffe win, he will break that string. Unfortunately, Cuccinelli trails in the polls by 6-8 points right now, but this is certainly within striking distance. Combined with a practically guaranteed Christie victory, should Cuccinelli pull out a victory, it will be interesting to see how the liberal political pundit class analyzes these races. We know a Christie victory plus a Cuccinelli loss will lead them to say that the way forward for the GOP is through moderation, bipartisanship- the Establishment way. But a Christie victory plus a Cuccinelli victory would change the entire narrative. Already, they are grousing about Virginia purging the voter rolls of 40,000 people which they claim will benefit Republicans.

But the differences between the Virginia and New Jersey races are certainly deeper than purging the voter rolls by 40,000 people. I really do not put much emphasis on fundraising figures as predictors of electoral success, but McAuliffe has outraised Cuccinelli by $9 million thus far. Unlike New Jersey, there is a “bona fide” third party candidate- Libertarian Robert Sarvis- who is averaging about 10% in the polls. Generally, votes for the Libertarian candidate costs the Republican candidate. Most experts analyze this as a 2-3% cushion margin for McAuliffe should Cuccinelli surge here at the end of the campaign. The government shutdown has further hurt Cuccinelli since Virginia is rich in government workers- certainly more so than New Jersey. This distraction had real-world effects in Virginia and prevented Cuccinelli from controlling the message.

Furthermore, there is the GOP infighting that dates back to Cuccinelli’s nomination to run for governor. Instead of using the primary system, the Republicans opted for a convention system that was dominated by conservative activists, thus insuring Cuccinelli’s nomination over Gov. Bob McDonnell’s preferred successor, Lt. Governor Bill Bolling. Although left unsaid at the time, this action grated on the nerves of more moderate elements within the Virginia GOP. McDonnell, who was riding a wave of popularity at the time, was expected to eventually help Cuccinelli. But, his recent problems not only sidetracked those plans, it was likely McDonnell would not be an avid Cuccinelli supporter from the start. As a result, he has been sidelined while many moderate Virginia Republicans have been eerily silent on the race.

This is crying shame because Terry McAuliffe is not exactly the most loved person in Virginia. He entered the race with a list of negatives. The first is his government inexperience. As a former head of the DNC, he was viewed as nothing more than another political hack. He lacks true ties to the state and is more of a “carpetbagger.” Like McDonnell, he is replete with shady business dealings- largely overlooked by the liberal media. And he entered the race with mediocre popularity ratings that have not grown better over the course of the campaign. In essence, Virginia is presented with two equally unpalatable choices. What a McAuliffe victory would do- and this perhaps a more important point- is to give Hillary Clinton a base in the South should she run in 2016. Despite Virginia going for Obama in 2008 and 2012, those victory margins were not insurmountable by a GOP presidential candidate in 2016.

The race between Cuccinelli and McAuliffe is particularly telling through the newspaper endorsements. One Richmond newspaper which generally endorses Republican candidates has refused to endorse either candidate for Governor and has instead preferred silence on the race. A second, definite conservative newspaper out of Charlottesville has urged voters to write in Bolling’s name come Election Day. Granted, newspaper endorsements do not hold as much weight with the electorate as in the past, but they are somewhat telling of the atmosphere of the state, especially when a conservative newspaper refuses to endorse the most conservative candidate in the race.

In conclusion, the outcomes as concerns the Republican Party will be over-analyzed and overplayed. The more important thing to be taken away from the outcomes is their effect on the 2016 presidential election rather than the direction of the GOP, and whether a moderate/Establishment candidate is preferred and has a greater chance of an election victory than a more conservative/Tea Party candidate. In short, the results of neither race are responsible indicators of the 2014 midterm election results.