The Portents of Election 2013: Republicans beat themselves in Virginia


by WSJ, Editorial

The major political parties split Tuesday’s pair of Governor’s races, as Democrat Terry McAuliffe won a close race for an open seat in the swing state of Virginia while Republican Chris Christie romped to a second term in New Jersey. The party that should do the most soul-searching is the GOP.

Start with the embarrassing fact that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lost to Mr. McAuliffe, a carpetbagger and crony capitalist from central casting. The chief fundraiser for Team Clinton was the first Virginia gubernatorial candidate of a sitting President’s party to win since 1977. The defeat has many fathers, including incumbent Republican Bob McDonnell, who can only serve one term and got himself into a political-gift scandal that made it hard for the GOP to run an ethics campaign against Mr. McAuliffe.

Mr. Cuccinelli’s supposed friends in the tea party also stabbed him in the back by pushing the government shutdown. About 30% of Virginia voters live in the Washington, D.C., suburbs that are packed with government employees, and the Democrat won that suburban vote by 62% to 33% according to the exit polls. If Senator Ted Cruz, Heritage Action and the kamikaze caucus had spent money for Mr. Cuccinelli instead of attacking fellow Republicans in August, he might have won.

The bigger question for 2014 and beyond is whether Virginia is moving from swing state to majority Democratic. This seems unlikely only four years after Mr. McDonnell won 59% of the vote. Mr. Cuccinelli also spent the last week campaigning against ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion in Virginia, and it helped him close what was a double-digit deficit.

But Mr. Cuccinelli’s dour social conservatism hurt him among some voters. His positions on abortion and gay marriage are the same as Mr. McDonnell’s and for that matter not much different from Mr. Christie’s. Yet Mr. Cuccinelli sometimes gives the impression of being a charter member of the cast-the-first-stone coalition, which made it easier for Democrats to stereotype him with their deluge of TV ads financed by the Clinton machine.

Mr. Cuccinelli never found a strategy or language to neutralize the Democratic “war on women” or war on immigrants charges, which is a warning to Republicans in all but the most conservative states. His hardline immigration position repeated Mitt Romney‘s blunder in a state that has a growing Hispanic population. Mr. Cuccinelli won the white vote by 20 percentage points, but the electorate was only 70% white compared to 78% four years ago. He won by four points among men but lost women by eight.

The other big question from Tuesday is what Republicans can learn from Mr. Christie’s resounding triumph. Part of the victory is personal, a tribute to his outsized personality and talent for blunt persuasion. His embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy a year ago irritated many Republicans and hurt Mr. Romney, but it sealed Mr. Christie’s reputation as a leader for New Jersey.

One mistake for the GOP to avoid is casting Mr. Christie as a “moderate” because he won twice in a Democratic state. The Governor has by and large governed as a conservative reformer. He vetoed a tax increase on millionaires and capped property taxes. He pushed tenure reforms that will make it easier to fire bad teachers, and he extracted far more pension reform out of a Democratic legislature than did Democratic Governors Jerry Brown in California or Andrew Cuomo in New York.

Mr. Christie’s biggest disappointment has been failing to improve the state’s economy. New Jersey still ranks 49th in the Tax Foundation’s state tax climate index, ahead of only New York. The state jobless rate is still 8.5%, among the 10 highest in the country. It’s true he inherited a mess, but Mr. Christie will need a new reform agenda in 2014 to impress national GOP primary voters going into 2016.

We’ll be watching to see if Mr. Christie had any legislative coattails, but Republicans everywhere should study how he managed to win among non-Republican voters. You need them to become a majority party.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the exit poll results on the shutdown.

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