WASHINGTON D.C. (NBC) - Gov. Chris Christie’s big re-election victory in New Jersey on Tuesday offered the GOP a roadmap toward revitalization in 2016 as the more uncompromising conservative, Ken Cuccinelli, suffered a narrow defeat in Virginia’s gubernatorial election.
Christie cruised to victory with an impressive coalition of New Jersey voters demonstrating crossover outside of the GOP that very few Republicans have shown in recent national elections.
His success stands in contrast to the contest in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe bested state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican whom half of Virginia voters said was too conservative after he spent years cozying up to the Tea Party and its unflinching conservatism.
Though Cuccinelli managed a closer-than-expected showing against McAuliffe, his long history of social conservatism contributed to a poor showing with women voters, particularly those who support abortion rights. And last month’s government shutdown, a strategy backed by fellow conservatives in Congress, almost certainly doomed Cuccinelli in vote-rich Northern Virginia – an area heavily dependent on federal spending.
Republicans nonetheless cheered Christie’s victory as an example of how a GOP candidate can achieve broad success without having to compromise on principle. Christie won women voters by 13 points over token Democratic opponent Barbara Buono, according to exit poll data; Cuccinelli lost women voters to McAuliffe by eight points.
A year removed from the 2012 presidential election, in which Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s poor performance with Hispanic voters prompted GOP soul-searching and hopes for immigration reform, Christie won almost almost half of New Jersey’s Hispanic vote. The governor also won almost one-in-five black voters, and almost a third of New Jersey Democratic voters.
Christie’s sweeping victory offers Republicans a playbook for future electoral fortune even as national demographics continue to work against the party. More tantalizingly, the governor can point to his healthy margin of victory and crossover appeal as he makes his case to fellow Republicans as to why he should be the party’s presidential nominee come 2016.
“The biggest thing I've learned over the last four years about leadership is that leadership is much less about talking than it is about listening,” Christie said late Tuesday in a victory speech that seemed as dedicated toward fellow Garden Staters as a national audience. “I know that if we can do this in Trenton, N.J., maybe the folks in Washington, D.C., should tune in their TVs right now to see how it's done.”
The message for Republicans from Virginia was sure to be less certain.
At first glance, Cuccinelli’s loss seems to raise fresh questions about the brand of take-no-prisoners conservatism championed by the attorney general. Cuccinelli’s made a name for himself as a steadfast opponent of “Obamacare,” but had also fought for restrictions on abortion rights and same-sex marriage throughout his career.
Cuccinelli’s loss was far tighter, though, than most pre-election polling had suggested. And his core conservative backers are almost certain to second-guess what could have been for Cuccinelli had Republicans put more effort behind his campaign. Cuccinelli also closed out his campaign by describing it as a de-facto referendum on health care reform, prompting Republicans to ponder whether the line of attack was more effective than they had thought.
"Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” Cuccinelli maintained in a relatively unapologetic concession speech.
Republican elders will in coming days seize on Tuesday’s results as a validation of their caution for the GOP to improve its outreach to women and minorities, while adopting less harsh tones and a less confrontational approach to many issues. The party establishment also scored a key victory in a Republican primary runoff for a House seat in Alabama, where Bradley Byrne fended off Tea Party challenger Dean Young in a hotly-contested race.
Heading forward, Tuesday’s contests fell just short of the decisive outcome that would have promised to finally tame the Tea Party demons with which Republicans have wrestled with for the past four years.
That question might not be settled until 2016, if and when Christie – armed with his comfortable re-election tonight – can make his case to Republicans nationwide that electability and compromise should outweigh the hard-lined tactics that have driven the GOP’s numbers to all-time lows in public opinion polls.
“I know that, tonight, a dispirited America – angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington –looks to New Jersey to say, ‘Is what I think’s happening really happening? Are people really coming together?” Christie said toward the end of this speech.
Christie added: “Let me give the answer to everyone who is watching tonight: Under this government, our first job is to get the job done, and as long as I’m governor, that job will always, always be finished.”
By Michael O’Brien, Political Reporter, NBC News