Dems, GOP, tea party dig in after New Jersey, Virginia elections

As partisanship renders Washington largely dysfunctional, voters in two states signaled this week that they want consensus-building even when there’s divided government.

In reliably Democratic New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie easily won a second term with support from voters who aligned with President Barack Obama last November. Those same voters kept Democrats in charge of the New Jersey Legislature, even as they gave the popular governor a boost as he considers running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

In Virginia, one of the nation’s most competitive states, longtime Democratic power broker Terry McAuliffe defeated Republican Attorney General Bob Cuccinelli by a narrow margin for governor, but Republicans retained control of the House of Delegates. The state Senate remains up for grabs in a coming special election.

McAuliffe and Christie each embraced the notion of bipartisanship in their victory. But exit polls and immediate reactions from national party players — including tea party activists — suggest that Republicans and Democrats are likely to remain entrenched in their partisan positions.

During the campaign, McAuliffe hammered Cuccinelli as a tea party conservative, hardliner on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and cheerleader for the national Republicans whose opposition to the health care law helped trigger the partial government shutdown in October. Cuccinelli saddled McAuliffe with the clumsy implementation of Obama’s signature law.

Both strategies resonated, but Democrats say McAuliffe’s victory proves which mattered more and portends a Democratic advantage in Senate and governors’ races next year.

“Ken Cuccinelli made this race a referendum on Obamacare,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. Democrats “made it a referendum on the shutdown and extremism. We won.”

Virginia exit polls found that 42 percent of voters oppose the tea party movement, while just 28 percent said they support it. But on the question of blame for the shutdown, the difference was essentially the same as McAuliffe’s margin of victory: 48 percent blamed Republicans in Congress, with 88 percent of those people voting for McAuliffe; 45 percent blamed Obama, with 87 percent of them opting for Cuccinelli.

But Democrats’ interpretation ignores voter dissatisfaction with the health care law. Half of New Jersey voters and 53 percent of Virginia voters said they opposed it, and the two Democratic governor candidates got 11 percent and 14 percent of those voters.

That encourages Republicans, said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, chairman of the GOP’s national governor’s association, particularly given McAuliffe’s considerable financial advantage over Cuccinelli. “Voters are very frustrated with the dysfunction of Washington, very frustrated with the incompetent rollout of Obamacare,” Jindal said.

Many Republicans happily note that Christie performed well among groups that typically lean Democratic, carrying 57 percent of women and 50 percent of Hispanics. He also improved on his 2009 share among black voters, winning 21 percent, up 12 points. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, struggled in all three groups.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Christie showed Republicans can reach outside the usual GOP core. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said that bodes well for a Christie White House bid.

“You gotta say that this fella is on the right track if the Republican Party’s not too stupid to pick him,” Hatch said. “Hopefully it means that the tea party people will realize that it’s better to work within the Republican Party than to continually make it very difficult to elect Republicans.”