The GOP’s Election Rift

Both business conservatives and Tea Partiers walked away from Tuesday’s vote feeling emboldened. How the divide could shape the 2016 presidential race.

Drew Angerer/AP

For Republicans, Tuesday settled nothing.

Business conservatives, social moderates, and pragmatists will seize on Chris Christie’s decisive re-election in New Jersey as proof that the right kind of Republican can win even in a deep blue state. Doesn’t that prove that the right kind of Republican—notably Chris Christie himself—could win nationwide in 2016?

Tea Party activists and social conservatives can, however, claim something they enjoy even better than a victory: a betrayal. Their guy Ken Cuccinelli had been dismissed as extreme and unelectable. National party leaders declined to invest seriously in his campaign; big donors closed their doors to him. And yet, Mr. Doomed posted a 45.5-percent result in purple Virginia, not much worse than John McCain in 2008 (46.33 percent) and within hailing distance of Mitt Romney in 2012 (47.28 percent). Imagine if the party had invested in him instead of stabbing him in the back! At a minimum, Cuccinelli’s very respectable performance in a state heavily dependent on federal employment would seem to confirm Michael Barone’s observation: “The government shutdown didn’t much hurt Republicans.”

So business conservatives and pragmatists emerge from the Tuesday vote emboldened; social conservatives and the Tea Party proceed unchastened. Business Republicans might believe that a less provocative conservative might have defeated Terry McAuliffe in Virginia. They have the better of the argument—but not so much better as to overwhelm those who would prefer to believe otherwise. Jim Geraghty at NRO summed up the case for and against the “party betrayal” theory of the Cuccinelli defeat. Here’s his summary of the case in favor:

At the end of September, the RNC had $11.2 million in cash on hand. The RNC spent $3 million dollars in Virginia developing its “precinct team model” instead of television advertising, where Cuccinelli was getting creamed every commercial break. The RNC spent $1.5 million in New Jersey in a race Christie was certain to win anyway, including a half-million dollars on minorities who were open to voting Republican.

To be sure, as Geraghty notes,

If the polling had shown a closer race, the RNC undoubtedly would have committed more money. But only two out of 25 polls conducted in Virginia since mid-September showed McAuliffe leading by less than 5 points. Most had the Democrat leading by 7 to 9 points.

That’s a credible counter-argument. But it’s not a conclusive counter-argument. Those who wish to believe otherwise have scope to do so. There are many who do wish to believe otherwise—and they dominate Republican presidential primaries.

Those believers will have two effects on the 2016 field. In the first and more obvious place, they create the constituency for a Ted Cruz/Rand Paul insurgency candidacy. In the second, more subtle and more dangerous place, they will exert gravitational force on a Chris Christie candidacy, pressuring him to remake himself—as in 2008 and 2012 Mitt Romney was pressured to remake himself.

Cruz has repeatedly argued that “true conservatives” win presidential elections and “moderates” lose. There’s a lot of jiggery-pokery in this claim: it leans pretty heavily on the idea that George H. W. Bush counted as a “true conservative” in 1988 but had lost caste by 1992. And was George W. Bush really more conservative than Bob Dole? But never mind! That’s the attitude millions of Republican primary voters will carry into the booths with them. The 2013 outcomes will not change their minds. It will only confirm their grim suspicion that their defeats are the works of their own party leaders, doing their treacherous work at the behest of a secretive party establishment. They’ll continue to feel that the cause of “true conservatism” needs only one more big push. They’ll continue to resent, mistrust, and despise those Republican leaders who tell them it won’t work. Nothing happened on Tuesday night to cause them to change their minds if they don’t want to. And they emphatically do not want to.