As Chris Christie and Terry McAuliffe celebrate their respective election victories, political commentators are scrambling to interpret what these elections mean for the national political landscape in 2014 and beyond. Their predictions are all over the map. The truth is, a lot can change in politics in the span of a year, which explains why political pundits are poorer predictors of the future than economists and meteorologists.
Still, it would be a mistake for Republicans to conclude that Tuesday’s results suggest nothing about how the party should move forward. I find four lessons to be particularly important.
The first is the need to incorporate those who identify as classical liberals or libertarians into the party. These voters appreciate the need for responsible budgets and an economy free from excessive government intervention, but accuse Republicans of abandoning their small government message by opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights. In Virginia, a majority of voters opposed liberal fiscal policy and the profligate spending and higher taxes it entails. Yet, disagreements on social issues caused many potential Republican voters to vote for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. While our political system disincentives third parties by making it difficult for them to get representation proportional to their voter base, it encourages the major parties to court third party voters to get the edge over the other party. Convincing libertarians that the Republican Party best represents their values would also be a good step to being more of a “big tent” party, rather than one characterized by onerous litmus tests and dogged by the perception of ideological extremism.
The second is the need to work across party lines. Chris Christie’s popularity in New Jersey is due in no small part to his leadership in the days following Hurricane Sandy. Some Republicans criticized Chris Christie for greeting the President in New Jersey a few days before Election Day, alleging that it was proof of his “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) status. Those Republicans were rightly criticized for being out-of-touch with the suffering of Sandy’s victims. Working across party lines is not a good idea when it requires compromising fundamental principles, but in this case, Republican criticism was driven by a purely partisan desire to see President Obama removed from office. Chris Christie is a shining example of how partisanship should fade away when the nation needs the help of all of its elected officials.
The third lesson is the continued need to court minority and women voters. Virginia has drifted leftward as the minority population has increased substantially, especially in and around Fairfax County. Attorney Ken General Cuccinelli’s tough stances on immigration and abortion hurt him among younger, more racially diverse voters, more than 15 percent of whom backed Sarvis. Additionally, McAuliffe’s victory was due in large part to female voters, who backed him by a larger margin than men backed Cuccinelli. In New Jersey, the story was completely different. Governor Christie performed admirably with minority populations and got the majority of the female vote, proving that Republicans can remain competitive as electorates become more diverse. His focus on the economy rather than more divisive social issues made him an attractive candidate to ideologically moderate and politically independent voters.
The final takeaway from Tuesday’s elections is how politically rewarding straight talk can be. Chris Christie is not the type of politician who sticks to the script and hides behind a teleprompter. His confrontational style may have angered many in the media, but it gave him a reputation as a straight shooter who says what needs to be said. He did not shy away from calling out New Jersey’s teachers unions and state legislatures when they obstructed the good of Garden State residents. Sticking to poll-tested phrases is not the only way to get elected. Republicans should leave behind tired rhetoric and seek to articulate a fresh message about their vision for the country.
As the President’s approval rating slides to 40 percent due to continued dissatisfaction with Obamacare, Republicans have a real chance at taking back the Senate in 2014. But to do that, they must embrace political tactics that can appeal to the center of the country’s political spectrum. Republicans would be wise to take a few pages out of Christie’s playbook.