Next week’s election will be an important one for the future of the GOP. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is up for re-election, and by all accounts he is set to defeat his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, by a wide margin. Christie is widely considered a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and his ability to win support among independents and Democrats in his home state will be a central part of his appeal.
But in Virginia, it increasingly looks as though Terry McAuliffe, an entrepreneur and investor best known as a political ally of former President Bill Clinton, will defeat Ken Cuccinelli, a staunch conservative much admired by the Tea Party right. At least some conservative activists saw Cuccinelli, who as Virginia’s attorney general played a leading role in constitutional challenges against the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration initiatives, as a potential presidential contender. A bruising defeat against McAuliffe will put an end to such talk.
There are many things that separate Christie from Cuccinelli. Having served as governor for the better part of the last four years, Christie is a familiar figure. He began his tenure with a series of polarizing confrontations with New Jersey’s powerful public employee unions, yet he has spent the last year on a more conciliatory note, motivated in part by a desire to help his state recover from the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. In a heavily Democratic state, Christie has distanced himself from congressional Republicans, and he has framed himself as a pragmatic reformer who stands above the political fray. This position is particularly valuable in light of parlous state of the GOP brand. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the Republican party now has a 22 percent positive rating and a 53 percent negative rating across the country, and it’s a safe bet that the picture is even worse in New Jersey.
Cuccinelli, unlike Christie, has long been an unapologetically ideological conservative, and in the wake of the government shutdown, Democrats have succeeded in characterizing him as politically extreme. Whereas Virginia’s current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, fought his Democratic opponent to a standstill in northern Virginia’s populous suburbs, Cuccinelli is running far behind Cuccinelli in this same all-important region.
There is one difference between Christie and Cuccinelli that has yet to attract enough attention, and that is how both Republicans are faring with African-Americans. A new survey of Virginia voters from the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy finds that while Cuccinelli wins a plurality (44 percent) of the white vote, he has the support of only 4 percent of black voters. Meanwhile, recent polls have found that Christie attracts around 30 percent of black voters. Even if Christie doesn’t perform quite as well with African-Americans on Election Day, there is little doubt that he’ll break into double-digits.