The 2013 elections amounted to a nightmare scenario for Republicans who had hoped the results might provide some resolution to their ongoing intraparty squabble.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative firebrand closely associated with the tea party, lost the governor’s race in the commonwealth but by a far narrower margin than public polling suggested he would.
In a conservative House district in Alabama, an underfunded GOP candidate who openly questioned President Obama’s citizenship nearly ousted a well-known state senator who had run for governor in 2010 and received a last-minute campaign boost from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Those results blunted a remarkable victory in New Jersey by Gov. Chris Christie, who became the first Republican to win the state’s governor’s race with more than 60 percent of the vote in almost three decades. He did so, however, without pulling many down-ballot Republicans into office with him.
In short: The elections Tuesday provided enough fodder for either side of the GOP divide — broken down somewhat crudely as the establishment vs. the tea party — to declare victory.
“The results in Virginia and Alabama will allow the tea party wing to keep alive an alternative narrative,” said one GOP strategist who was granted anonymity to speak freely. “They’re bolstered by a parallel universe of bloggers, talk radio hosts and their own political strategists — most of whom have never actually worked in campaigns, like at Heritage Action and FreedomWorks.”
Cuccinelli allies insisted that if the establishment had aligned itself behind him rather than sitting on its hands or, in some cases, backing Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe, he could have won. The prime aim of their ire: Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who refused to endorse Cuccinelli after being forced to abandon his long-planned bid for governor to make way for the attorney general.
Establishment forces noted that Christie won overwhelmingly in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1988 and dismissed the narrowness of Cuccinelli’s defeat.
“I don’t think Republicans should obsess over Virginia,” said Ed Rogers, a prominent Republican lobbyist and close political confidant of former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour. “Cuccinelli was a lousy attorney general. He lost the election because he didn’t have a record to run on.” Of Christie, Rogers said, “He didn’t have to fake it, pose or test the topics du jour to have something to say and a positive reason for voters to support him.”
But, for every voice like Rogers, there is one that lays the Cuccinelli loss on a lack of organizational and financial support from groups such as the Republican Governors Association.
The end result is that both sides of the GOP argument live to fight another day, each emboldened by the election in its own way. That “next day” will be in a series of Republican Senate primaries over the first seven months of 2014.
The first — and most telling — will be in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces wealthy businessman Matt Bevin in May. McConnell has been the aggressor in the race so far, attacking not just Bevin but the Senate Conservatives Fund, an outside group that has endorsed the challenger. The Senate Conservatives Fund “has elected more Democrats than the Democratic Senatorial [Campaign] Committee over the last three cycles,” McConnell told Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently.
Then come two critical summer primaries, one in Mississippi and one in Georgia. In Mississippi, Sen. Thad Cochran faces state Sen. Chris McDaniel. McDaniel has been endorsed by a panoply of conservative groups, including the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth. In Georgia, a crowded field of Republicans is competing for the GOP nod in the race to replace retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey are firmly aligned with the tea party wing, while Rep. Jack Kingston and former secretary of state Karen Handel are establishment favorites.
What the GOP has to hope is that a clear winner — not a candidate, but a side of the party — emerges from those contests. But judging from the recently concluded elections in Virginia and New Jersey, that prospect seems very unlikely. And that’s terrible news for a party that has been its own worst enemy so far in 2013.