As another year draws to a close, I usually take time to evaluate what has happened in my life during this past year and what I might look forward to in the next. It always feels good when the past year takes the clouds of uncertainty away and gives me a solid expectation for the next year.
Those who represent us at the local, state and national government levels need to look critically at what the year has taught them, so they can bring the nation forward in 2014. This is prudent not only for the citizens they represent but many will face reelection and the possibility of losing their jobs.
Heading into the midterm elections, prognosticators and analysts will undoubtedly continue to tease out predictions based on the few contests that were held in November. Most of the focus will remain on Governor Chris Christie’s landslide reelection in New Jersey and Governor Terry McAuliff’s narrow victory over Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia.
Many have already concluded that Governor Christie’s wide margin of victory and Cuccinelli’s narrow defeat are proof that the Republican Party must become more centrist on moral issues. They point to Cuccinelli’s vocal support of the sanctity of life and traditional marriage as proof that these positions are becoming passé and should be abandoned.
The call to the “moral middle” is also bolstered by the fact that Governor Christie recently equivocated on the issue of marriage. Although he has repeatedly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, he withdrew an appeal to the New Jersey State Supreme Court decision that redefined marriage to include same sex couples. Christie’s defenders accepted his explanation that he didn’t want to waste state resources by having the attorney general pursue what was bound to be a losing fight. Critics pointed out that it is the governor’s job to reign in an activist judiciary, which is stepping beyond the boundaries of interpreting the state’s constitution by creating new laws on its own.
But on closer examination, Christie’s victory is far from a clarion call to the GOP to compromise on moral issues. Whatever one believes about Governor Christie’s decision, it is highly unlikely that it affected the outcome of his reelection bid. According to Edison Research exit polls, just 6% of New Jersey voters cited same-sex marriage as the driving force behind their vote. Furthermore, few analysts remember that Governor Christie vetoed state funding of Planned Parenthood five times during this first term as governor. Yet he handily beat his female opponent, winning women by 12 points.
Michael Barone analyzed the difference with Cuccinelli this way: “Cuccinelli’s positions on abortion and same-sex marriage are not much different from Christie’s or Virginia Republican incumbent Bob McDonnell’s. But his tone was, and he lost single women by 42 percentage points.” To be fair, McAuliffe was able to run non-stop advertisements painting Cuccinelli as an extremist, while Cuccinelli lacked the funding to respond effectively.
A more important lesson for the GOP is Governor Christie’s notable gains with minorities. Christie won over 20% of the black vote and 51% of the Latino vote. Incumbents almost always have an advantage, but Governor Christie proved that he put his first term to good use, building relationships within minority communities. In 2009, he won just 9% of the black vote, but he focused on spending time in black communities as governor. Said Christie of his gains with Hispanics, “I’m very proud of that, because I’ve worked hard with the Hispanic community to let them see how our policies can help their families.”
Cucinnelli, on the other hand, won only 8% of the black vote. By contrast, incumbent Republican Governor Bob McDonnell received the high profile endorsement of life-long Democrat Sheila Johnson in 2009. Johnson co-founded Black Entertainment Television with her ex-husband, Bob Johnson, and said at the time, “From the beginning, Bob McDonnell has been very concerned about the economy. He has really laid out a roadmap for solving these problems."
Speaking to Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Christie said bluntly, "…if you want to attract the majority of the Hispanic vote, if you want to nearly triple your African-American vote, you need to show up. You need to go into those neighborhoods. You need to campaign in places.” I couldn’t agree more.
Why don’t more Republicans do what Governor Christie did and show up? I can only speculate but this much is true: many politicians endure the tiring and thankless campaign process partly because they enjoy being cheered, not booed. Campaigning in hostile territory requires a level of courage and confidence that the average politician simply doesn’t possess. Building trusting relationships is a process of years, not weeks, and demands a kind of patience and commitment that most candidates and campaign managers have little use for.
Republicans do not need to abandon the pro-family convictions that have kept their coalition together for the past several decades. They do need to adjust their messaging so that it is less easily distorted by a hostile press. They absolutely must reach out to ethnic minorities, not just during election season, but year round. Unless the GOP is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to build those kinds of long term relationships, they will need to prepare for many decades of being minorities themselves.