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.