Last week’s elections for the governorships of New Jersey, where the Republican incumbent won, and Virginia, where the Republican contender lost, have thrown into sharp relief two political dynamics it’s important to not lose sight of. The first is that Black voters in both statewide contests (and in the New York City mayor’s race) have once again proven why the Republican Party is so desperate to undermine their right to vote by any legislative or regulatory means necessary: Because Black Americans’ commitment to vote shows every sign of continuing to increase. More about that later.
The second development those elections made unmistakably clear is the open political war inside the Republican Party between its establishment wing, as represented by politicos such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and its Tea Party faction, as represented by Ken Cuccinelli, the Virginia Attorney General who tried unsuccessfully to move up to the state’s governor’s chair.
The establishment wing has grown increasingly angry that the Tea Party faction is alienating voters the GOP needs to win back the White House. For their part, Tea Party activists and officeholders have never hesitated to sneer at their establishment counterparts as “RINOs” (Republicans in Name Only).
So: did the triumphant re-election of Gov. Christie – forged in a decidedly Democratic-leaning state, with substantial support from nearly all segments of the electorate, including Black and Hispanic voters – signal the GOP had found a workable campaign model and a champion for the 2016 presidential contest?
Or did the fact that in Virginia, Tea-Party hero Cuccinelli lost to Terry McAuliffe, the well-funded Democrat and long-time Clinton close associate, by less than three percentage points prove the appeal of extreme right-wing positions even in a state that President Obama won just a year ago?
The problem for the GOP is that last week’s results didn’t settle that crucial question because the two contests each had their own unique set of circumstances.
In Virginia, Cuccinelli, a doctrinaire reactionary, tried to obscure his record in hopes of appealing to moderate and independent voters.
But that approach was undermined by his running mate for Lieutenant Governor, E.W. Jackson, a Black minister who had never run for any office before and whose views were even more extreme than Cuccinelli’s. That Jackson insisted on spouting them only served to remind voters of Cuccinelli’s past positions, too.
Furthermore, Cuccinelli was hurt by a political scandal involving expensive gifts both he and out-going Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell had received from a donor seeking their support for his business ventures.
The Cuccinelli-Jackson combination provoked such GOP establishment pillars as the Republican Governors Association, the Republican National Committee, and the U.S. Chambers of Commerce to sharply cut their financial support of Cuccinelli’s campaign – the most dramatic sign of their determination to rein in the Tea Party.
But there’s also no evidence the Chris Christie “model” could be duplicated elsewhere or power his march through the GOP primaries once he officially declares he’s seeking the GOP presidential nomination. New Jersey is a reliably Democratic state, whose electorate has just rewarded him for his rightly praised leadership in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Its solidly Democratic majority of voters aren’t alarmed by Christie’s rock-ribbed social-conservativism because he doesn’t flaunt them—and they have a safety valve against him: Democrats control both houses of the New Jersey state legislature.
It’s worth noting that last week, as Christie won 60 percent of the vote, 61 percent of the voters also approved amending the state constitution to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 on January 1 and increase it annually to keep pace with inflation. Democrats had proposed the amendment after Christie had blocked passage of similar legislation.
That’s just one example of the difficulty Christie will have explaining himself in Republican Party primaries, where his audience will have a far different political cast than in New Jersey.
But the fact that Christie won 21 percent of the Black vote and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote does illuminate – for the umpteenth time – a political truism. It’s easy to get at least a decent proportion of the “minority” vote. All one has to do is sincerely speak to the issues that concern them – and then, once in office, deliver.
That’s why Black voters in Virginia turned out to vote last week at a rate that matched their performance in the 2012 presidential contest (when, nationally, the Black voter turnout rate surpassed that of Whites for the first time). And why they gave 90 percent of their votes to Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, and not, Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican. They understood they had something to vote for – and something to vote against.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America