The governorship of Virginia has been held by some of the most eminent men in American history: Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Randolph, Henry Lee, James Monroe. And now, Terry McAuliffe will sit in their chair. Depressing? Perhaps, but it is worth remembering that for about half a century, the political machine of Harry Byrd selected Virginia governors based upon their loyalty to “the Organization.” If Virginia has seen better leaders than the Democratic apparatchik who served as chief fundraiser during the scandal-plagued Bill Clinton years, it should come as some comfort to denizens of the Old Dominion that it has (probably) also seen worse.
What to make of the longer-term implications of the 2013 off-off-year elections, both in Virginia and in New Jersey, where Chris Christie cruised to an overwhelming victory? It is hard to judge what they mean for 2014 and beyond, although many pundits will try. These are but 2 states out of 50, and, moreover, the electorates that emerged last week will probably not be seen again. Such is the nature of low-turnout affairs a year before a midterm and three years before a presidential election. Still, there are some conclusions to draw about the broader national picture, especially looking at the two states together.
Let’s start with Virginia. Terry McAuliffe has all the sleaziness of Bill Clinton with none of the Southern charm or policy wonkery. Yet he managed to win a comfortable, if underwhelming, victory in a state that until recently had been solidly in the Republican column. The manner in which he accomplished this feat is what should interest conservatives, for he mimicked the old Clinton approach, which will surely be Hillary Clinton’s tack in 2016.
McAuliffe did exactly what his master did in 1996. First, he started with a solid base of support from those in the lower socioeconomic strata of society, in particular poor African Americans. According to the exit polls, he won 65 percent of those who make less than $30,000 a year, and 90 percent of African Americans. To this substantial group—about half his total voting coalition—he added people at the high end of the socioeconomic strata. He won 57 percent of people with a postgraduate degree and 55 percent of people who make more than $200,000 a year. In Virginia, a state with a tight relationship to the federal government, these are people with great faith in the capacity of technocratic experts to manage society. Add their gentry liberalism (support for environmentalism, abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.), and they were easy McAuliffe targets.
But this is not enough in Virginia, especially the Virginia of 2013, a state whose electorate last week was not terribly disposed to the party in power. President Obama’s job approval in the exit polls was a weak 46 percent, identical to support for Obamacare. On top of that, the voters roughly split on who deserved blame for the government shutdown, with just a slight plurality pointing the finger at the Republicans. So how did McAuliffe get this indisposed electorate to back him?
That is where his comfort level with the upper echelon of society comes into play. McAuliffe followed a tired-but-true playbook: In his public appearances, he played the role of crusading populist, looking out for the people and not the powerful; behind the scenes, he massively outraised his opponent by currying favor with the powerful interests he publicly disclaimed. What to do with all that cash? With an electorate that is growing tired of big government, it is not enough for a Democrat as liberal as McAuliffe to paint a positive vision of the future. Instead, he had to scare the bejesus out of people, warning them in ad after ad that his Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, is an extreme crypto-Puritan who would set the Old Dominion back a century or more.
It is in this way that McAuliffe pulled in just enough anti-Obama voters to win. While a majority of Virginia voters disapproved of the president, McAuliffe pulled in 11 percent of them. Of voters who opposed Obamacare, McAuliffe won 11 percent. This is not much by any stretch of the imagination, but elections are always fought at the margins—and, importantly, McAuliffe managed to win more Obama opponents than Cuccinelli won Obama supporters. In his quest, he was assisted enormously by a divided Republican party, including a donor class that never really gave Cuccinelli a second look. The state’s attorney general, of course, failed to help his own cause by running an inept campaign. Ditto the party activists who saddled Cuccinelli with a lieutenant governor candidate, E. W. Jackson, whose controversial comments put him too far outside the mainstream.
In the immediate aftermath, many Republicans were pleased that the results were as close as they were, but a loss is a loss. They allowed a third-rate Clinton impersonator to defeat them with a playbook that has been in operation for a generation. By now, one would think that Republicans would have come up with a good answer to the charge of extremism, or that they would have successfully shown the voters the rank hypocrisy that the “party of the people” displays by milking special interests for all they’re worth to run ads against special interests. But, alas, one would be wrong.
That should be a sobering fact, because the Democrats look set to nominate a second-rate Clinton impersonator (his wife) in three years who will assuredly run the Clinton playbook once again. She’ll go up to Wall Street and, nudge-nudge-wink-wink, reassure the country’s economic barons in so many words that, indeed, all will be fine in a second Clinton presidency. Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein has already signaled he’ll be on Team Hillary, so she will not even have to work very hard at this. Then she will use Goldman Sachs money to convince the country that her opponent will hand the government over to Goldman Sachs. And, of course, she’ll apply a healthy dollop of fearmongering over birth control, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, and any other cultural hot-button issues she can think of to persuade voters that the Republican nominee is the bane of all that is right and good.
Are the Republicans ready for this? By the looks of the Virginia gubernatorial race—not to mention four out of the last six presidential elections—the answer appears to be no. But maybe they can get ready.
Farther up the Acela Corridor, in New Jersey, the results hold promise for the GOP. The Democratic playbook is as predictable as it is (usually) effective, yet it failed utterly in the deep-blue Garden State. In fact, the failure was foreseen so long ago that the Democrats did not even try to forestall it. Their nominee, Barbara Buono, was left to twist in the wind and complain bitterly about how her party had abandoned her to a 60-38 shellacking from Republican governor Chris Christie.
That goes to show that the old one-two punch of people-versus-the-powerful and cultural demagoguery just does not work on certain candidates, those whose mere presence somehow reveals the entire schtick to be as vacuous as it truly is. Christie is just that sort of Republican. He is pro-life, but nobody was ever going to tag him as a dangerous Holy Roller. He went after the labor unions with vigor, but Democrats did not even try to tag him as an enemy of the common man. He has his fair share of friends at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, but he never gives the impression that he’s in their pocket. The Democrats could have given Buono $50 million to run the Clinton playbook against Christie, and she still would have lost.
Those are the sorts of qualities the Republican nominee must have to take on Clintonism in three years’ time. But that is not to say Christie is the man for the job, at least not yet. His problem is that—so far—he looks to be a divisive figure within his own party. Many conservatives are suspicious of him. Whether their reasons are legitimate or not is beside the point. One of the (many) causes of Cuccinelli’s failure in Virginia was that his own coalition was divided between the “grassroots” (who loved him) and the “establishment” (who did not). This sort of division, if taken into 2016, will prove crippling. Alienate the grassroots, and watch the base stay home. Alienate the establishment, and watch the big-money donors withdraw. The party must find a candidate who not only is immune to Clintonism, but also does not exacerbate existing divisions within the GOP coalition. All hands will have to be on deck in 2016.
Whether Christie is that candidate is still to be seen. A lot of questions remain. Can he reassure the base? Can he appeal not simply to the Northeast, but also the Midwest, where elections are won and lost? Can he stand up to Clintonism when it is actually being administered by a Clinton and funded by half a billion dollars (or more)?
It is too soon to say. At the least, we can conclude that last week’s elections imply promise and peril for conservatives in the years ahead.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.