Ever since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, his state ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, extended his hand to President Barack Obama, the Tea Party has been adamant in calling him a Republican in Name Only (RINO), a sin exceeded only by being a Democrat.
Yesterday, Christie won re-election in a landslide. The Tea Party didn't fare as well. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, despite running in a state that — while turning purple — is far more conservative than solidly blue New Jersey.
In Alabama, establishment Republicans scored another victory when former state Senator Bradley Byrne defeated Dean Young, a Tea Party favorite who insists that the president was born in Kenya, to become the GOP's candidate in the state's 1st Congressional District.
Both Christie and Byrne have been decried as RINOs, which, to outsiders, seems odd, seeing as both have solidly conservative voting records — especially on economic issues.
"One mistake for the GOP to avoid is casting Mr. Christie as a 'moderate' because he won twice in a Democratic state," wrote The Wall Street Journal. "The governor has by and large governed as a conservative reformer."
Liberals have long complained about Christie's reputation as a moderate Republican, seeing as he opposed a minimum wage hike, raising taxes for the wealthy, and funding for Planned Parenthood. Byrne has a solid conservative voting record as well, earning him endorsements from a plethora of business groups and the NRA.
Getting a Tea Party endorsement isn't so much about policy as it is "a question of tactics and tone," wrote TIME's Alex Altman. In other words, RINOs are blasted for reaching across the aisle, not for how they vote.
This latest election, argued The Daily Beast's John Avlon, shows the flaw in that standard of conservatism:
On Tuesday night, Christie went a long way toward establishing himself as the Republican Bill Clinton, a charismatic candidate able to re-center his party and reach out beyond the base even in traditionally hostile territory. Hard-core conservatives might call him a RINO — a Republican in Name Only — but there’s another name for it. A winner. [Daily Beast]
The fact that Young lost should be an even starker warning to Tea Partiers. Races in deep-red Congressional districts, as opposed to state-wide races, are traditionally where Tea Party candidates should be able to shine.
Young's hard-charging style and his unapologetically retrograde views — "Homosexuality is wrong, and that is just the way it is," he told The Guardian — were rejected by voters in a district that is about as reliably Republican as any in the country.
"The message to Republicans should be obvious: Stop nominating candidates who are far out of the political mainstream," wrote USA Today's editorial board. And while USA Today believes that "should happen naturally over time as Republicans grow weary of losing," others aren't so sure the GOP will learn its lesson.
No matter how conservative a so-called RINO votes, some Tea Party members will always back the firebrand, wrote The Washington Post's Carter Eskew:
Waiting in the wings in Virginia as well as many other states are a new generation of extremely conservative activists are ready to put their ideals ahead of any loyalty to party. And, while Chris Christie may be checking leases tonight on charter flights to Iowa and New Hampshire, his plain-speaking moderation will likely sound dissonant to those who still control the party’s energy and direction for the foreseeable future. They see themselves as revolutionaries and don’t sweat losing a battle here and there. They are focused on the war. [Washington Post]
Of course, two gubernatorial races and one Congressional race isn't a large enough sample size to declare the Tea Party dead. The real test will come next year during the 2014 midterm elections.