Elections in New Jersey and Virginia are getting premature tongues wagging about their importance for 2014 and 2016. Chris Christie's landslide in New Jersey, where he picked up a majority of the woman's and 21 percent of the African-American vote, have commentators talking about the demise of the Tea Party. However, Tea Partiers point to the close loss of Ken Cuccinelli to Terry McAuliffe in Virginia as proof that the movement is still vibrant.
However to tout a loss as a symbolic victory is tricky. After Richard Nixon's narrow defeat to John F. Kennedy in 1960, many conservatives suggested that the GOP nominee had been too moderate. Barry Goldwater's quest for the Republican nod in 1964 was based in this theory. "Out there" it was argued there was a conservative majority if only they were given a "a choice not an echo." This hypothesis was tested, and Goldwater went down in defeat.
Now, Christie's victory has made "no labels" moderates salivate over what a pragmatic Republican could do if not burdened by what they regard as side social issues. As with Tea Parties they see perhaps more than should be seen out of one group of returns.
Just three weeks before, those same New Jersey voters sent Cory Booker, a flawed Democrat if ever there was one, to the United States Senate with 55 percent of the canvas. Thanks to the inept governorship of Jon Corzine, Christie's Democratic predecessor, New Jersey's middle and working class were alienated and saw the Republican as a viable alternative. As Tip O'Neill observed, "All politics is local."
The "no labels" guys also run the risk of over-reading the returns. In 1962 Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and William Scranton won governorships in New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Thus the theory went out that they would be able to challenge John Kennedy. Problem Republican voters in the South, Midwest and the West had other ideas. Goldwater, although launching the Conservative movement roughly, nevertheless was on the direction favored by the rank and file, as Ronald Reagan proved in 1980.
The Tea Party will not simply go away but the old luster is gone. For instance, Cuccinelli's declaration that his margin of defeat was somehow a statement on the Affordable Care Act is a reach. It still was a defeat, although not as bad as anticipated. But the Roman General Pyrrhus lament that if it was a victory, another such "and we will be undone" is valuable to reflect upon. The GOP nominee had other problems and McAuliffe had some eyebrows raised over his ethics.
But Democrats would only be happy to hear Tea Partiers focus on the old obsessions. Obamacare, the birther issue and all of those could keep even the most mediocre Democratic candidates in the running. Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake commented that if you heard a GOP aspirant declare that the president "was born in Kenya" it was good to look for another choice. Pragmatism and not ideology drive this argument.
As with the revelations on Benghazi and the false CBS "60 Minutes" story that slammed Obama, public opinion is subject to adjustment. If the healthcare website is improved it has a shelf-life like the Ditta Beard Story in 1971 regarding GOP corporate contacts. Obsessions encourage conspiracy minded cranks, which in the end have the body politic.
Two elections do not tell a tale, but they do offer some guideposts. Christie's was a win, not a defeat, and his emphasis on the positive rather than Cuccinelli's negative seems a better bet in the future.