Victory Is in the Eye of the Beholder in New Jersey, Virginia and Alabama

by Stuart Rothenberg November 8, 2013 · 9:51 AM EST

Tuesday’s election results offer something for everyone.

Democrats can look at Virginia and conclude that Republican “extremism” on social issues like abortion, contraception and guns, combined with the deep divisions that appeared in the Alabama 1st District GOP primary results, continue to offer them opportunities for 2014 and virtually guarantee victory in 2016.

Republicans can look at the tightness of the Virginia contest and conclude that the unpopularity of Obamacare strengthens their hand for 2014 and will be an albatross around the neck of the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016.

Pragmatic conservative Republicans can point to Bradley Byrne’s victory in Alabama and Chris Christie’s blow-out in New Jersey as evidence that the tea party wing of the GOP has met its match and “establishment” candidates have greater electability.

And tea party conservatives can point to Alabama’s primary results to prove that the establishment will do whatever it can to deny grass-roots conservatives the victories that they deserve — and conclude that fighting just a little harder is all that it will take to defeat the establishment eventually.

In point of fact, I don’t see Tuesday’s results resolving differences or answering many questions for 2014.

I’ve heard that the government shutdown and the scandals of the sitting governor, Bob McDonnell, hurt Virginia Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s chances. But the exit poll showed Virginia voters almost evenly divided on who is “more to blame” for the shutdown — 48 percent saying Republicans in Congress and 45 percent saying President Barack Obama — and McDonnell had a much better job approval than the president — 52 percent for the governor, compared to 46 percent for Obama.

I’ve heard that the gubernatorial race tightened in Virginia because of Obamacare, but I also heard that the race closed because Republicans finally moved to Cuccinelli very late, not because health care caused independents or Democrats to vote against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

I’ve heard that Christie’s victory makes him the “leader” of the GOP and catapults him to the front of the Republican field for 2016. But I know that Christie hasn’t yet taken a punch from a GOP opponent, and that the kind of people who vote in closed Republican presidential primaries and caucuses may not be so enthusiastic about the New Jersey governor’s candidacy for the Republican nomination.

Yes, Christie and Byrne won and Cuccinelli lost, but anyone who thinks that signals the end of Ted Cruz, Heritage Action or the tea party simply doesn’t understand the GOP base.

Republicans remain deeply divided over strategy and tactics, and a large chunk of the party remains very, very angry — both at Democrats and the GOP establishment.

You can also count me as skeptical that Republican voters have now decided to vote strategically rather than on principle. Christie may be able to maneuver himself through the minefield that is the GOP nominating process, and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham may well win re-nomination and re-election. But the Republicans have not yet reached the point Democrats did in 1992, when they turned to Bill Clinton.

Christie’s victory does raise the question of whether the GOP would be wise to select a governor as its presidential nominee — someone who can show the ability to lead and govern, and someone who isn’t burdened with Washington, D.C., and Congress. Of course, that wasn’t a winning formula for them in 2012, was it?

At the end of the day, New Jersey and Virginia are very different states, and state races are different from federal contests. The 2014 midterm could be fought on a different landscape, and nobody knows what potholes Christie will face in the next year in the Garden State.