Both Democratic and Republican strategists are dissecting Tuesday's election results for clues to what might happen in next year's congressional elections. State races in off years are not always good predictors of how a party will do nationally during congressional or presidential elections, but there are some important lessons to be learned.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's reelection win was predictable. He is a popular reformer who reached out to minorities and women running in a state that has had its fill of Democratic corruption and tax hikes. He's a conservative -- a pro-life Catholic who personally opposes gay marriage -- but he never tried to make social issues a focus of his campaign. When Christie welcomed President Obama to tour damage along the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy just before last year's presidential election, many conservatives felt betrayed. But his constituents thought he was putting them before partisan politics. The lesson: Style matters.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's gubernatorial loss was just as predictable. The one thing that was not predicted was how very close Cuccinelli came to defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli lost by only 2.5 percent, not the double digits the polls predicted right up to Election Day. What makes the narrow race more remarkable was that McAuliffe, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in American politics, outspent Cuccinelli by nearly two to one. The lesson: Money matters -- a lot.
If Republicans hope to do well next year, they need to follow Christie's example in reaching out to nontraditional GOP voters. Christie won a majority of Hispanic votes, while Cuccinelli garnered fewer Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney did last year -- and Hispanics are becoming a more significant sector of the electorate in Virginia as elsewhere.
Cuccinelli's hard line on immigration hurt him significantly, as did comments he made on a radio station in 2012, which turned into fodder for McAuliffe's Spanish-language ads. Cuccinelli criticized a D.C. pest control law he said protected rodents from extermination: "It is worse than our immigration policy -- you can't break up rat families, or raccoons or all the rest. And you can't even kill them." The remarks infuriated many Hispanic voters, and rightly so. If the GOP keeps alienating this growing segment of the electorate, it can kiss the White House goodbye.
But foot-in-mouth disease isn't the Republican Party's only problem. Democrats are proving to be better fundraisers than Republicans. If McAuliffe had not been able to outspend Cuccinelli by such a wide margin, the Republican actually might have won. By mid-October, the full disaster that was the rollout of Obamacare was becoming obvious to many voters. But Cuccinelli had no money to flood the airwaves with new ads, while McAuliffe could still spend millions to portray his opponent as a dangerous reactionary. Many voters were beginning to catch on to the obvious lies of Obama and supporters of his health-care takeover, like McAuliffe, but Cuccinelli didn't have enough money to exploit growing dissatisfaction.
Next year's election could well pivot on Obamacare. Except for the poor and near poor -- who are already in the pocket of the Democratic Party -- Obamacare will prove a bad bargain for most Americans. Those who already have insurance, either through their employer or individually, will likely see their premiums and deductibles rise. And those who don't have insurance will find their options more limited. The young and healthy will be denied the kind of catastrophic policies well suited to their needs, while being forced to pay for services they don't want. After everything finally shakes out, there still will be millions of uninsured Americans, while those with insurance may find their pocketbooks lighter and their choices fewer.
The Democrats are banking that none of this will matter as long as they hold onto their core constituencies: blacks, Hispanics, single women, union members and the over-educated affluent. As exit polls in Virginia showed this week, those with advanced degrees and those earning more than $200,000 are now reliable Democratic voters. And these latter two groups help fill Democratic coffers so that the GOP no longer has the money edge it once did.
Tuesday's elections should give Republicans hope for next year. But it will take a lot more outreach and more money to turn hope into GOP victory in 2014.