The networks finally have declared Democrat Terry McAuliffe the winner in the Virginia gubernatorial race, breaking a 36-year pattern in which the party that won the White House lost the governor’s race the following year. For hardline conservatives, this result and the blowout win by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie should provoke some reflection.

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post) Virginia gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, II participate in a debate. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Tea party favorite Ken Cuccinelli believed attacking McAuliffe’s record, running against Obamacare, and sticking firm on social issues and guns would be enough in an off-year election to win the state. This is the mistake too many right-wingers make, namely that if the electorate is tweaked just right and every single one of their voters can be dragged to the polls that victory will be theirs. This is misguided in all but deep red states and jurisdictions. Even in Virginia, the electorate is far too diverse, socially tolerant and desirous of good government to line up behind a strong ideologue whom they fear will engender more partisan fighting. To be blunt, even a sleazy pol with no real agenda can beat a right-wing hardliner in Virginia.

Exit polls initially had McAuliffe winning by seven points, but McAuliffe will wind up winning by a tiny margin. Republicans cite the ongoing Obamacare debacle as having hurt McAuliffe. Indeed it may account for the race tightening quickly in the final days. As for the Clintons, the result was not nearly as impressive as her backers would have liked. Neither should provide much comfort for Dems around the country who will have to run on Obamacare in 2014 and seem to have already coronated Hillary. The connection between Dems and Obamacare may be more potent in the Senate races when those who actually voted for it will be on the ballot.

In Virginia exit polls told us, 48% support Obamacare and 50% are opposed to it; McAuliffe will certainly win by more than that. Likewise, even though voters disapprove of President Obama by a 53 to 46 percent, many of the voters still voted for McAuliffe. Cuccinelli held his base, but among moderates he was beaten handily. He lost among women, overwhelmingly among single women. Those who opposed the tea party were in a plurality among Virginia voters and they went overwhelmingly for McAuliffe.

Republicans will be left to ponder whether a more moderate candidate like lieutenant governor Bill Bollings could have beaten the flawed McAuliffe. Cuccinelli lost the race, as so many conservatives have, by getting swamped in Northern Virginia suburbs and other densely populated areas. Conservative insiders who demanded a convention instead of an open primary doomed Bollings and  gave them a candidate unable to garner sufficient appeal outside his base. One Richmond, Virginia Republican emailed, “You realize this means ANY Republican, and I mean ANY, would have destroyed [McAuliffe].”

The contrast between Cuccinelli and outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell is stark. McDonnell was nearly as conservative, but his demeanor, positive agenda and rhetoric was reassuring to the broad swath of Virginia voters, giving him a 17 point win. The hard right might not like the result, but very few states outside deep red regions will go for an angry firebrand. They need to change their tone and message, even in off year races with more a conservative electorate, or they will find themselves making excuses for defeat year after year –even against candidates as weak as McAuliffe.

The lesson should be clear: It is not enough to be against the same things a majority of voters are against; GOP candidates must make the case for their own candidacy, something Cuccinelli did not do.