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First Thoughts: The GOP establishment strikes back - but with an asterisk

GOP establishment strikes back and Tea Party takes it on the chin… But there’s a big asterisk in Virginia: Did the establishment abandon Cuccinelli?... What Virginia tells us about where the nation is right now (Obama and health-care law are underwater, but 61% want abortion to be legal and just 28% support Tea Party)… A Dem sweep in Virginia? All eyes on the thisclose Herring-Obenshain contest… On Christie’s win and 2016… And breaking down last night’s other races.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie waves to supporters after celebrating his election night victory in Asbury Park, New Jersey November 5, 2013. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

*** The GOP establishment strikes back -- but with an asterisk: If you’re an establishment Republican who wants to regain control of the GOP from the Tea Party, last night was a good night. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) cruised to re-election, getting impressive scores with Democrats (getting 32% of that vote), Latinos (51%), and even African Americans (21%). In Alabama’s congressional GOP runoff, the establishment-backed Bradley Byrne beat Tea Party candidate Dean Young. And in Virginia’s high-profile gubernatorial race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli. Why was that result bad news for the Tea Party? Because it’s not hard to believe that another Republican running for the office -- term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell (who had a 52% approval rating in the exit polls) or Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (who took a pass on the race given that the party’s nomination was going to be decided via a convention instead of a primary) -- probably would have won last night’s race. From the start, the joke about Virginia’s gubernatorial contest was that the only person whom Cuccinelli could beat was McAuliffe, and the only person McAuliffe could beat was Cuccinelli. And who ended up being the more flawed candidate in the purple state President Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012? Answer: Cuccinelli. Establishment Republicans will add last night’s Virginia race to the list of races the Tea Party has thrown away -- Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada in 2010; Indiana and Missouri in 2012.

*** Did the establishment abandon Cuccinelli? But there is a BIG asterisk to this last point in Virginia. Given the close margin -- McAuliffe 48%, Cuccinelli 45% (though the Democrat’s lead could grow once all the votes are counted, a la what happened in 2012) -- Tea Party Republicans have a different take on the race: They are wondering what could have been if the GOP and its wealthy donors gave more support to Cuccinelli in the closing weeks. Why didn’t more big-money Republicans donate to Cuccinelli (remember, Virginia’s campaign-finance laws so loose, a donor could have written him a $1 million check)? Why didn’t the Republican National Committee give him more money (in fairness, the RNC started out ’13 with a LOT less money than it had in ’09, some $20 million less)? Why didn’t Christie campaign for Cuccinelli after the Cuccinelli campaign begged him? Folks, these questions have the potential to pour gasoline on the ideological fire inside the Republican Party. And so it doesn’t seem like Virginia’s results are going to settle this GOP divide. But we’ll go back to the point we made above: Would Republicans even be talking about a loss had Bill Bolling been their nominee?

*** What Virginia tells us about where the nation is right now: As we wrote yesterday, no state has better reflected the political middle of the country than Virginia. And what did the state tell us last night? President Obama’s approval rating is 46%, and an equal percentage supports the health-care law (while 53% oppose it). So Obama and three weeks of intense coverage of the health-care rollout aren’t helping Democrats. But then look at these numbers: 61% of Virginia voters said that abortion should be legal, and only 28% said they supported the Tea Party. Yet what should concern Republicans the most about Virginia are its demographics and swing suburbs/exurbs. McAuliffe won just 36% of white voters (compared with Obama’s 37% in 2012), and still won the race thanks to minority support. Political independents favored Cuccinelli by nine points (matching Mitt Romney’s indie margin in 2012), but Democrats still won due to their Party ID advantage, 37%-32%. This party ID tells you how the GOP brand is faring. And as one of said back in September, he (or she) who wins Virginia’s suburbs and exurbs will win the contest. Guess what: McAuliffe won Henrico County (outside of Richmond), 51%-38%; he won Loudon County (DC exurb), 50%-45%; and he won Prince William County (DC exurb), 52%-44%. Bottom line: The middle still decides elections. 

*** Why was Virginia a bit closer than expected? By the way, we’ve heard from some Democratic wise folks who are wondering if some of the other late issues hurt McAuliffe a bit and helped drive up Cuccinelli base turnout. One is President Obama’s late appearance for McAuliffe. Not a lot of evidence it helped, and some Dems wonder if it hurt given the president’s poll numbers. Two, those Bloomberg anti-gun ads. As one person reminded us, the NRA has a net-positive fav/unfav rating in Virginia. Perhaps there was a gun-control message that could have worked in Virginia, but many Democrats are arguing to us this morning, the Bloomberg group didn’t have the right message to fit Virginia.

*** A Dem sweep in Virginia? Here’s one final point about Virginia: Despite gubernatorial race being closer than the polls had it, Democrats still have the possibility of a statewide sweep. McAuliffe won the gubernatorial race; Ralph Northam won the LG contest; and the AG race between Mark Obenshain (R) and Mark Herring (D) is a nail-biter, and we might not know the result for days.

*** On Christie’s win and 2016: As for Christie’s victory in New Jersey, it’s easy to see how it was a presidential kickoff of sorts. The backdrop of his victory looked presidential, and so did much of his message (hitting Washington’s dysfunction). But there are two sets of numbers that could trouble Christie. The first was that despite Christie’s 20-point-plus win, voters by a 48%-44% margin said they’d vote for Hillary Clinton over their governor, suggesting that Democrats will come home for Hillary. (That said, a majority -- 51% -- said Christie would make a good president.) The second troubling number? Christie lost voters ages 18-29 to Democrat Barbara Buono, 51%-49%. This is less a Christie issue than a larger problem for the GOP. The GOP’s age gap is growing, and the fact that younger voters are becoming so loyal to the Dem Party is something that is a long-term issue.

*** The other races: And in the other notable contests last night, Bill de Blasio (D) won New York City’s mayoral contest… Martin Walsh (D) will be Boston’s next mayor… And Mike Duggan (D) will be Detroit’s first white mayor in decades.

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