Conservatives can still win; just look at Christie

If you were trying to predict the future four years ago, you might have expected Republicans to be in better shape in Virginia than New Jersey. Republicans romped in the election for governor in the first state, while winning more narrowly in the second. New Jersey is also much more Democratic than Virginia: It went for President Barack Obama by a bigger margin than any other state with a Republican governor.

Yet Republican Gov. Chris Christie cruised to an easy re-election Tuesday in New Jersey, while Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the race to lead Virginia even though he ran against Terry McAuliffe, who was widely derided even among Democrats as a weak candidate.

In northern Virginia, where I live, McAuliffe’s campaign pounded Cuccinelli with ad after ad making him out to be an extreme social conservative who wants to restrict birth control and divorce. Those ads appear to have worked, especially among women, who favored McAuliffe by a huge margin. The federal government shutdown, which affected a lot of people in northern Virginia, probably hurt Cuccinelli, too, but he was down in the polls and losing support before it began.

The social-conservative writer and activist Maggie Gallagher blames Cuccinelli’s poor showing on his failure to stand up for his views. She draws on a recent report from the socially conservative group American Principles in Action, which argued that Mitt Romney erred in the 2012 presidential campaign by taking a defensive tack on social issues.

She argues that the flaw of the “truce” strategy now favored by many Republicans is that the other side doesn’t observe it. Last year, for example, Democrats said that Republican views on social issues amounted to a “war on women.” When Republicans don’t respond vigorously to such attacks, they demoralize their allies and lead moderate voters to think that maybe the Republican candidate really is a social-issues extremist who wants to hide it.

The argument is persuasive, to my mind, but incomplete. To get a fuller picture, think back to the 2009 contest for governor in Virginia. Republican Bob McDonnell, the current governor, won big even though Democrats tried to paint him, too, as a social-issues extremist.

Why do they seem to be succeeding now when they failed then? It’s partly a matter of countenance: McDonnell was cheerful (if boring), and Cuccinelli often appears dour and argumentative. And it’s partly because McDonnell, unlike Cuccinelli (or Romney), responded to the attacks with his own effective ads.

Another difference, though, is that Cuccinelli made his name as a conservative crusader, especially on social issues, where McDonnell made his as a bipartisan problem-solver. McDonnell’s Democratic critics had to dig up a 20-year-old grad-school thesis he had written to make him look out of the mainstream; Cuccinelli’s have more recent initiatives and statements to work with. Refusing to defend that record put Cuccinelli in the worst possible position.

He would probably have been better off restating his views while criticizing McAuliffe’s own extremism. (McAuliffe refused to say if he thought partial-birth abortion should be legal, for instance.) That would have given conservatives more reason to come out to vote for Cuccinelli, and at the very least given moderates less reason to vote against him.

Cuccinelli may have hesitated because polls have shown him losing a significant number of votes to a third-party candidate running as a pro-choice libertarian. But even a lot of libertarian-leaning Republicans are willing to vote for pro-life candidates, as McDonnell’s landslide proved.

Socially conservative positions on hot-button issues don’t seem to be a deal-breaker even for the much more liberal voters of New Jersey. Christie has vetoed legislation to grant state recognition to same-sex marriage — a judge later ordered it, though Christie briefly appealed — and vetoed bills to fund Planned Parenthood five times.

He did not, however, seem obsessed by social issues. Democrats didn’t get much mileage out of ads saying his priorities were different from those of voters, as they did against Cuccinelli. Christie also avoided taking unpopular socially conservative stands on issues that weren’t live debates, and he took the occasional opportunity to soften his profile.

Cuccinelli’s defeat may demoralize social conservatives — especially if the news media spin the defeat as a sign that their concerns are a millstone around the neck of Republican politicians. Christie’s re-election shows that such an interpretation is wrong. Being a social conservative is not by itself a political death sentence even in deep-blue territory.

If Christie wants to run for president, he may find that pointing this out is a low-cost way of appealing to a national constituency that matters a lot in his party.