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Christie wins, Cuccinelli loses: The lesson for Republicans

Moderate Christie won in NJ, while Tea Party favorite Cuccinelli lost Virginia to McAuliffe.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli talks with supporters while greeting voters on Election Day, November 5, 2013 in Mechanicsville, Virginia.
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli talks with supporters while greeting voters on Election Day, November 5, 2013 in Mechanicsville, Virginia.

Democrats and moderates won big in key races in an off-year election on Tuesday. Virginia went blue, electing Terry McAuliffe. NYC elected progressive Bill de Blasio as its first Democratic mayor in 20 years, and in New Jersey, Chris Christie, a popular governor viewed as a centrist, sailed to re-election.

Two races defined the internal fight for the soul of the Republican Party. While GOP lawmakers and party insiders struggled to define an identity, pulled between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party brand of conservatism, voters backed moderates.

Virginia voters chose Democrats to be their next governor and lieutenant governor in an apparent referendum against the Tea Party, which has extremely poor approval ratings after last month's government shutdown. Once a Republican stronghold, Virginia demonstrated that the party's far-right wing was a liability--a result that party elders will be analyzing as they head for the 2014 midterms.

Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli hoped the race would be an election about Obamacare, and he tried to capitalize on the tumultuous rollout of president’s health care law to rally conservatives in his favor. But his stance on abortion issues, the environment, and health care were hammered by the McAuliffe campaign. Unmarried women, in particular, responded in McAuliffe’s favor. 

“This election is going to say a lot about Virginia’s future, and the country’s future,” Obama said while stumping for McAuliffe over the weekend.

Virginia’s own restrictive voter ID law won’t go into effect until 2014, but the state did recently purge voter rolls of 40,000 reportedly ineligible voters (and, according to many registrars, hundreds of eligible voters with them) just weeks before the election. In a court challenge, Cuccinelli defended the move in his role as attorney general; Democrats alleged that the purge disproportionately targeted Democratic voters and asked the attorney general to recuse himself. Cuccinelli declined. 

Despite that, Virginia’s secretary for the Virginia State Board of Elections Don Palmer told reporters that voting went “pretty smoothly,” despite a software glitch that slowed down check-in processes in roughly half of one county’s polling stations.

“I’m sure it’s probably made the wait a little bit longer than it should be,” he said, according to The Washington Post.

New Jersey incumbent Gov. Christie easily beat his Democratic challenger Barbara Buono. The governor’s no-nonsense style and his recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy prompted sky-high approval ratings that haven’t fallen much. Christie opposes gay marriage, but he is stylistically and politically a far different breed of Republican than Virginia loser Cuccinelli.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Christie sent a message to the national party about what it takes for Republicans to win. He highlighted his leadership style of "bringing people around the table, listening to each other, [and] showing them respect." 

"While we may not always agree, we show up," he said. "We don't just show up in the places where we're comfortable, we show up in the places where we're uncomfortable. Because when you lead, you need to be there." Christie added that he will not let any political party or outside force interfere with his "mission" to lead as governor of New Jersey.

Many expect Christie to run for president in 2016. One of Buono’s chief criticisms of the governor was that his presidential aspirations were pushing him further toward the right on matters of gay marriage and gun control (the governor notably vetoed the ban on a .50-caliber rifle, despite backing the proposal months earlier). 

Hillary Clinton may be the person to stop Christie in his tracks in a potential matchup, according to an NBC News exit poll. It showed Christie would lose to Clinton by 7 points if the 2016 presidential election were today.

Less than a month after a federal shutdown that tanked Americans’ views of their elected officials in Washington, voters also got their say in one congressional race between an establishment Republican and a Tea Party activist.

In Alabama’s 1st Congressional District, attorney Bradley Byrne—representing the center-right, business-aligned Republican party—won in the runoff election against Tea Party activist Dean Young, who just last week declared he believes the president was born in Kenya. Byrne earned the financial support of a number of business and Washington GOP groups hoping to keep Tea Partiers at bay—his race is likely the first in a long series of battles in the GOP’s civil war.

“Hopefully we’ll go into eight to 10 races and beat the snot out of them,” former Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told National Journal of their plan to fend off Tea Party challengers with a new group, Defending Main Street. “We’re going to be very aggressive and we’re going to get in their faces.”

The End Spending PAC, founded by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts that funded Ted Cruz in 2012 actually opted to support Byrne over Young, reported Monday, despite Young’s promise to be a “Ted Cruz congressman.”

Boston and New York both chose new mayors for the first time in over a decade.

Bill de Blasio won the New York City mayor's race by a landslide, becoming the first Democrat elected to the office in 20 years. It was the first time in three elections billionaire Independent Michael Bloomberg wasn’t on the ballot. Voters rejected his de facto successor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in favor of the uber-liberal de Blasio, who was a clear front-runner in the contest against Republican Joe Lhota, whose controversial late-in-the-game advertising push made some headlines, but did little to affect the polls.

In Boston, the Associated Press reported Massachusetts state Rep. Martin Walsh pulled off a victory to become the city's next mayor. Walsh, who tied himself to minorities and labor, duked it out with a fellow Democrat, City Councilman John Connolly, who pinned his campaign on education reform. Boston’s legendary Tom Menino did not seek re-election for the first time in two decades. 

In bankrupt Detroit, one local businessman rode a catchy jingle all the way to the mayor’s office. Mike Duggan was kicked off the primary ballot over a residency issue (the former hospital executive used to live in the suburbs), but crafted an incredibly catchy jingle of the spelling of his name encouraging voters to write his name in on the ballot in August. He beat out Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, according to the AP, making Duggan the city's first white mayor in roughly 40 years.

Elsewhere, amendments and ballot initiatives were being decided.

Voters in Colorado approved a measure to levy taxes on recreational marijuana. "We are grateful voters approved funding that will allow for a strong regulatory environment, just like liquor is regulated. We will do everything in our power to make sure kids don't smoke pot and that we don't have people driving who are high,'' said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper in a statement.

In Washington State, residents in the Seattle suburb of SeaTac, home to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, approved a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour and mandate paid sick leave for airport and hotel employees. It's a big win for workers. Statewide, a closely-watched initiative to require labeling on food with genetically modified ingredients appeared to be headed for failure. 

Though many voting laws won’t apply until next year, restrictive laws kicked in in several states, a full year after the president promised Americans that “we’re gonna fix that.”

In Texas, former Speaker of the House Jim Wright, 90, was nearly prevented from casting a vote—the first election Wright would have missed since 1944—when he realized his driver’s license was expired and made multiple trips to government offices to procure the proper ID, which he was finally able to do on Monday. Married or divorced women whose names don’t perfectly match the voter logs may also be prevented from voting.