A bad Election Day for the Tea Party

Political moderation was the big winner in off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama.

What happened

Political moderation was the big winner in off-year elections this week, as Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeated a Tea Party conservative to become governor of Virginia, and New Jersey’s moderate Republican Gov. Chris Christie was re-elected in a landslide. McAuliffe beat Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia by just 3 points, in a race that was widely seen as a national bellwether. Cuccinelli ran a deeply conservative campaign, condemning immigration reform and Obamacare, and pledging to restrict access to abortions. McAuliffe, a former business executive and ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, outspent Cuccinelli by as much as 10–1, and positioned himself as a “business-friendly” pragmatist who could work with Republicans. Cuccinelli credited his comeback from double-digit deficits in the polls to a voter backlash against President Obama. “Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” he said. In an Alabama congressional primary, state Sen. Bradley Byrne—the choice of establishment Republicans—defeated Tea Party challenger Dean Young.

Christie’s huge, 22-point victory in New Jersey installed him as the Republican to beat in the 2016 presidential primaries (see Controversy of the week). Across the Hudson River, Bill de Blasio was elected the first Democratic mayor of New York City in 20 years, defeating Republican candidate Joe Lhota with a defiantly progressive platform. De Blasio built his campaign on a “tale of two cities,” saying he wanted to narrow the gap between the city’s wealthy elites and the 46 percent of New Yorkers near or below the poverty line.

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What the editorials said

These results “hold important lessons for the GOP,” said USA Today. The party might easily have won in Virginia without an outspoken extremist like Cuccinelli on the ballot. This “longtime culture warrior” alienated female and moderate voters with hard-line policies such as personhood laws that would have banned abortion and some kinds of contraception, and a push to restore the state’s ban on sodomy. The message to Republicans who wish to become a majority party again is clear: “Stop nominating candidates who are far out of the political mainstream.”

Christie may be the “new hero of mainstream Republican conservatives,” said The Washington Post. But Bill de Blasio has become the standard-bearer for the Democratic left, embodying the liberal anger at President Obama’s failure to address income inequality and stand up for the 99 percent. De Blasio’s challenge “now goes from electioneering to governing,” said the New York Post, and there’s little to be optimistic about. Progressive mayors overspent and overtaxed this city into an economic morass in the 1970s and ’80s and let criminals run amok. De Blasio will erase 20 years of progress if he follows that same course.

What the columnists said

Democrats have little reason to celebrate, said Jonathan S. Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. Yes, the government shutdown engineered by the Tea Party put Cuccinelli in a deep hole. But even in “purple” Virginia, growing voter anger over the various betrayals in Obamacare “wound up turning a rout into a narrow election.”

Cuccinelli lost for a simple reason, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. As an activist attorney general, he tried to impose on all Virginians “a social and religious code” that was “extreme, hateful, and intrusive.” He opposed abortion even for rape and incest victims, advocated transvaginal ultrasounds to intimidate women seeking abortions, and insisted on abstinence-only sex education. Female voters swung for McAuliffe by 14 points, sending a message to all would-be conservative lawmakers that attempts to control women will be “met with a ‘no.’” Just do the math, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com. In a country in which just 35 percent of voters identify as conservatives, “a center-right candidate is going to do a lot better than a far-right candidate.’’

Still, it’s an ominous sign for Democrats that McAuliffe barely won, said Nate Cohn in NewRepublic.com.He was running under “all but ideal conditions,” with a vast money advantage in a state where many federal government workers are still fuming over the Republican shutdown. If Democrats struggle to beat a seriously flawed candidate like Cuccinelli, Republicans should be “feeling relatively confident heading into 2014.”

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