The takeaways from last week’s elections are about a man and a state.
The man, Chris Christie, was overwhelmingly re-elected governor of New Jersey, bringing cheer to Republicans. The state is Virginia, which is inching toward becoming a Democratic-leaning outpost. With both, there are caveats.
Christie was a big winner; some consider him a clear favorite for the 2016 presidential nomination and even the de facto leader of his besieged and divided party.
The recently published, headline-grabbing book on the 2012 election, “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, provides an insightful critique of the 51-year-old New Jersey Republican. He is smart, tough, empathetic, confident and arrogant. Wall Street billionaires, many of whom don’t give a whit about cultural or social issues, melt into a drooling man-crush around the take-no-prisoners Christie.
There also are yellow lights. Mitt Romney’s camp leaked the information they gathered while vetting Christie as a possible running mate on the Republican presidential ticket in 2012. It allegedly contained questionable billing, dubious relationships and dealings, and temperamental concerns. “If Christie had been in the nomination fight against us we would have destroyed him,” Romney’s advisers concluded, according to the authors.
Then there’s the question of how the brash, in-your-face Jersey style will play in the Midwest or South. Movement conservatives question Christie’s bona fides on immigration, climate change and guns, and they resent his failure to hate President Obama. Tax activist Grover Norquist predicts a softness on gun control will be especially troublesome for Christie.
As Christie tries to assuage movement conservatives, who form the base of the party, he risks losing his calling card: straight-talking authenticity.
Still, even though the old-line Republican establishment may be in eclipse, it has been a long time since they had a candidate as formidable this early.
Many Republicans say they lost Virginia’s gubernatorial race because their candidate, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, was flawed. True, but the Democratic victor, Terry McAuliffe, was from New York, has been a wheeler-dealer in money and politics for decades, and failed to deliver on a promise he made that a company he controlled would create jobs in Virginia.
More instructive, if somewhat muddled, are the Election Day exit polls. The electorate was 72 percent white, down from 78 percent four years earlier. Even if the black turnout was slightly exaggerated, the demographics of Virginia — once called a hotbed of social rest — are changing. That’s bad for Republicans.
Young voters represented 13 percent of the electorate this time, up from 10 percent four years ago. McAuliffe won this group by 5 points, much less than Obama’s 25-point margin in the presidential contest. A third-party, libertarian candidate did best with this demographic, getting 15 percent; he espoused tolerance and keeping the government out of people’s personal lives and bedrooms — views many Republicans reject.
The exit polls also cast doubt on Republicans’ claims that they almost won the race because of the unpopularity of the Affordable Care Act. By a slight margin, Obamacare was viewed negatively by voters this year, a result that is virtually unchanged from 2012 exit polls in the state.
Geoff Garin, a McAuliffe campaign poll-taker, says the controversial measure actually helped his candidate. “Medicaid expansion is part of Obamacare, and Cuccinelli’s opposition to that was an important part of the appeal to voters we targeted,” he said.
All things being equal, though they probably won’t be, color Virginia slightly blue going into 2016.
There’s no cause for cockiness. Democrats expected to do better with white working-class Virginians based on the idea that race may have played a role in Obama’s miserable showing with this group. Yet white, working-class, non-college-educated men voted overwhelmingly for Cuccinelli; southwest Virginia, a stronghold of these voters, went as decisively Republican as last time.
“We have a lot of work to start getting votes of working- class whites,” Garin said.
Mr. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist; follow him on Twitter at @AlHuntDC.