By Bill Schneider
Democrats had one thing going for them in the election this week: Republicans. That kept President Barack Obama's party from faring much worse.
Dissatisfaction with the economy is still very high. In the network exit polls, more than 80 percent of Virginia and New Jersey voters said they were worried about the nation's economy over the next year.
The economy was the top issue in both states. New Jersey voters concerned about the economy voted 2 to 1 for Republican Governor Chris Christie — even though he was the incumbent. It isn't his economy. It's Obama's economy. That's the new rule in American politics: All politics is national.
In Virginia, however, the poor economy didn't do the Republican candidate much good. Virginia voters who cited the economy as their top concern split their vote, 49 percent for Republican Ken Cuccinelli and 43 percent for Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The Republican should have carried Virginia. Obama's job rating among Virginia voters was down 6 points since 2012. Nonetheless, McAuliffe built solid majorities in the same New America constituencies that had delivered the state for Obama last year: women, racial minorities, educated professionals and young voters. Particularly unmarried women, whom Cuccinelli offended with his attacks on abortion, divorce and contraception. The Republican vote among unmarried women in Virginia dropped from 34 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 to 25 percent for Cuccinelli in 2013.
Why did Cuccinelli lose Virginia? Because he was linked to the Tea Party. Forty-two percent of Virginia voters said they opposed the Tea Party. Only 9 percent of them voted for Cuccinelli. Among New Jersey voters, opinion of the Tea Party was only slightly more negative (45 percent opposed). The difference was, Christie got 38 percent of the anti-Tea Party vote in New Jersey. Christie is a Republican — but he isn't part of the Tea Party movement.
Christie cut sharply into the Obama coalition in New Jersey. Women in New Jersey voted 62 percent for Democrat Obama in 2012. They voted 57 percent for Republican Christie in 2013. Christie carried the Latino vote in New Jersey and got 21 percent of the African-American vote. One-third of New Jersey Democrats voted for Christie. What percentage of Virginia Democrats voted for Cuccinelli? Two.
Why was the Virginia vote so close? "This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," Cuccinelli told his supporters. That's probably true. Fifty-three percent of Virginia voters opposed Obamacare, and more than 80 percent of them voted for Cuccinelli. If the Virginia race had been a referendum on the president, the Republican would have won. Instead, the Republican made it a referendum on the Tea Party. And he lost.
Christie is by no means unaware of the national implications of his re-election — and Cuccinelli's defeat. "Maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now to see how it's done," Christie said in his victory speech. "I know that tonight, a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey to say, ‘Is what I think happening really happening? Are people really coming together?'"
But don't expect Christie to waltz in to the Republican nomination in 2016. Conservatives don't trust him — precisely because he does so well in a blue state like New Jersey. Republicans fell for the "electability" argument when they nominated Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008 and Romney in 2012. And look what happened.
Conservatives are already explaining away the Cuccinelli defeat. He was vastly outspent by McAuliffe. He was tarnished the incumbent Republican governor's ethics scandal. He was hurt by the government shutdown — which was, of course, engineered by Tea Party Republicans. One in three Virginia voters said someone in their household was affected by the shutdown — and they voted 56 percent for McAuliffe.
The fact is, Republicans threw away a perfectly good opportunity in Virginia this year. They could do the same thing in 2016 by nominating a Tea Party candidate.
The message for Republicans could not be clearer. A mainstream Republican like Christie can carry a blue state like New Jersey. But a Tea Party Republican like Ken Cuccinelli can't carry a moderate Southern state like Virginia.
One thing about the Democratic victory in Virginia should not go unnoticed. McAuliffe was forthright in his support for expanded background checks on gun purchases. In the final debate of the campaign — held at Virginia Tech University, site of the mass shooting in 2007 — Cuccinelli called attention to his "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and pointed out that McAuliffe was the only statewide candidate in Virginia who got an "F" from the NRA. "I don't care what grade I got from the NRA," McAuliffe responded. "As governor, I want to make sure our communities are safe."
Nearly half the voters in Virginia on Tuesday said they had a gun in their household. But a third of gun owners still voted for McAuliffe. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave money to the McAuliffe campaign, said on CNN the day after the election, "Virginia is the home state of the NRA. That's where their headquarters are. If I had said to you 20 years ago that a Democrat who is ‘F'-rated by the NRA and unabashedly in favor of common sense gun checks . . . could win governor, you would have laughed me out of the room. Truth of the matter is, this is a phenomenal victory."
For that reason alone, it was.
(The author is a Reuters columnist. Views expressed are his own.)