The GOP Still Hasn’t Figured Out How to Get On With the Tea Party

Tuesday’s election results ensure that the battle over the faction’s role in Republican politics will rage on.

Riding high: Supporters of Terry McAuliffe
©2013 Richard A. Bloom
Charlie Cook
Nov. 7, 2013, 4 p.m.

Post­mortems of odd-year and spe­cial elec­tions of­ten suf­fer from overly broad gen­er­al­iz­a­tions that push a par­tic­u­lar nar­rat­ive while over­look­ing any ar­gu­ments that get in the way. The in­stant ana­lyses also tend to suf­fer from the im­pulse to ex­tra­pol­ate res­ults and di­vine great mean­ing, as if they fore­shad­ow the fu­ture. I’ll try to avoid both tempta­tions in of­fer­ing a few ob­ser­va­tions about Tues­day’s out­comes.

Was Vir­gin­ia gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Ken Cuc­cinelli an ideal can­did­ate for the GOP to run in an in­creas­ingly purple state? No, but neither was Terry McAul­iffe for the Demo­crats. Cuc­cinelli was very strong among the most ideo­lo­gic­al of Re­pub­lic­ans, but less so with the old-line Re­pub­lic­ans, the mem­bers of the es­tab­lish­ment and the busi­ness com­munity who were un­com­fort­able with his long-stand­ing and very strong em­phas­is on so­cial and cul­tur­al is­sues. In the end, these so­cial is­sues hurt Cuc­cinelli in the rap­idly grow­ing sub­urbs of North­ern Vir­gin­ia. Con­versely, McAul­iffe was very strong among the Demo­crat­ic Party es­tab­lish­ment but less pop­u­lar among the more ideo­lo­gic­al Left in the party. The 2008 split between sup­port­ers of Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton and Barack Obama is an apt com­par­is­on for de­scrib­ing the in­tern­al di­vi­sion that McAul­iffe faced early on. But lib­er­als’ an­ti­pathy to­ward Cuc­cinelli re­paired that rift.

Neither Cuc­cinelli nor McAul­iffe had a nat­ur­al claim on voters in the ideo­lo­gic­al middle. Look­ing at polls from late spring and early sum­mer, Cuc­cinelli led in some, McAul­iffe was ahead in oth­ers, but the race was pretty even at that time. Start­ing in mid-Ju­ly, however, the pat­tern changed dra­mat­ic­ally. After a Ju­ly 8-14 poll by Roan­oke Col­lege that put Cuc­cinelli ahead by 6 per­cent­age points, the next 38 polls lead­ing up to Elec­tion Day had McAul­iffe ahead, some by just 1 or 2 points, oth­ers by 10 or 12 (one by 15 points). McAul­iffe’s con­sist­ent lead in the sur­veys began at roughly the same time as Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell’s eth­ics prob­lems. Com­bine a weak can­did­ate with a gov­ernor un­der crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tion, and it was more than the cam­paign could with­stand. If Cuc­cinelli were a less threat­en­ing can­did­ate to sub­urb­an swing voters, he might have sur­vived Mc­Don­nell’s prob­lems, but he wasn’t and thus couldn’t. Both sides ran very com­pet­ent cam­paigns, it should be noted, and neither can­did­ate com­mit­ted any sig­ni­fic­ant faux pas.

Did the dis­astrous rol­lout of Obama­care hurt Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, dampen party en­thu­si­asm, and cost McAul­iffe and oth­er Demo­crats on the tick­et mo­mentum and sup­port? It’s cer­tainly plaus­ible, maybe even likely, but it is un­clear to what ex­tent that was the case. The exit-poll res­ults aren’t de­cis­ive on this point, and while pub­lic polling sug­ges­ted that in the last week or two of the race Cuc­cinelli gained more points out of the pre­vi­ously un­de­cided column than did McAul­iffe, it’s not ab­so­lutely clear that Obama­care caused the shift.

To­ward the end, the Huff­Post Poll­ster av­er­age in Vir­gin­ia showed a McAul­iffe lead of 7.2 per­cent­age points. One thing that polit­ic­al afi­cion­ados should have learned from Nate Sil­ver in 2012 is to watch for pat­terns as much as point spreads. When a lot more polls show Smith ahead of Jones, even though most of the leads are very small, even with­in the mar­gin of er­ror, the odds are pretty good that Smith will win — maybe by a little, maybe by a lot, but the prob­ab­il­it­ies are on Smith’s side. In this case, McAul­iffe was Smith, and al­though the 3-point win­ning mar­gin may not have been as wide as many ex­pec­ted, the out­come was as pre­dicted. Private Demo­crat­ic polling was re­portedly show­ing McAul­iffe ahead by 2 to 4 points, brack­et­ing the even­tu­al 3-point spread.

One takeaway is that while McAul­iffe ran up slightly high­er mar­gins among Demo­crats and lib­er­als than Cuc­cinelli did among Re­pub­lic­ans and con­ser­vat­ives, the fact that Cuc­cinelli could win the in­de­pend­ent vote by 9 per­cent­age points yet lose the elec­tion by 3 points is a re­mind­er that the gap between self-iden­ti­fied Demo­crats and self-iden­ti­fied Re­pub­lic­ans is get­ting so wide that, in many races, win­ning the in­de­pend­ent vote isn’t enough for a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate to bridge the gap. Re­mem­ber that Mitt Rom­ney won the in­de­pend­ent vote last year by 5 points but still lost the elec­tion by al­most 4 points. Brand dam­age has hurt the GOP in party iden­ti­fic­a­tion, and that, in turn, is hurt­ing Re­pub­lic­ans on Elec­tion Day.

In New Jer­sey, Re­pub­lic­an Chris Christie won as ex­pec­ted, with mar­gins that were as broadly spread among demo­graph­ic groups as they were deep. His 22-point vic­tory in a Demo­crat­ic state should be a les­son for his party: A Re­pub­lic­an who is mod­er­ately con­ser­vat­ive on eco­nom­ic is­sues and doesn’t em­phas­ize so­cial is­sues, even if he is re­l­at­ively con­ser­vat­ive, can win in en­emy ter­rit­ory. Christie didn’t walk away from con­ser­vat­ive voters and val­ues, but neither did he try to shove his con­ser­vat­ism down the throats of mod­er­ate swing voters.

In Alabama’s 1st Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, the win by the busi­ness-es­tab­lish­ment-sup­por­ted Brad­ley Byrne over tea-party-sup­por­ted Dean Young is the Fort Sumter of a civil war that will rage over the next couple of years for the heart and soul of the GOP. Es­tab­lish­ment and busi­ness-ori­ented Re­pub­lic­ans — call them the “coun­try-club set” — were the be­ne­fi­ciar­ies and some­times en­a­blers of the tea-party move­ment, un­til the tea party went too far and star­ted caus­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party ma­jor prob­lems. Out­side of a spe­cial kind of year like 2010, swing voters don’t go for the tea-party agenda in swing states and dis­tricts. But this war will go on; Alabama 1 didn’t settle any­thing. Re­pub­lic­ans have to fig­ure out who they are and who they want to be. The struggle between the Re­pub­lic­ans who go to Sunday school on the Sab­bath and the ones who head for the golf courses and ten­nis courts isn’t over.

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