There's a popular narrative dominating the talking class today, assuredly fluffing the victories of Terry McAuliffe and Chris Christie as clear signs that Americans want to elect people nearer to the political center than the fringe. While there may be some truth to that, what's even clearer from Tuesday's election results is that the Republican Party's civil war is about to get a whole lot louder.
Folks who are so certain they are right, like the tea party, will tend to grasp at anything when circumstance appears to have proved them wrong. Any shred of hope that their way is somehow better, or at least working, is suitable for many of them. In Tuesday night's elections, that shred of hope is Ken Cuccinelli's surprisingly-large turnout against McAuliffe, who polls predicted would win by a much wider margin.
In a stroke of irony, Cuccinelli's concession speech contained a brief lamentation about the influence of big money, noting that he was outspent by more than $15 million. For an electoral war largely waged on television screens, McAuliffe's financial edge meant he had Cuccinelli dead to rights and quickly drowning in attack ads. Not that Cuccinelli didn't deserve it, but when's the last time you saw a Republican running for a high-profile seat get so plowed over by big money?
A similar story played out in New Jersey, where Chris Christie ran away with the win. He also outraised his opponent by more than 3-1, using his momentum to pull in big donations from donors who've always leaned Democratic. That same influence can be seen and felt in dozens of races across the country, even in this otherwise less-than-exciting election year. In case after case we see that big money is on a winning streak.
Still, from the tea party's perspective, none of those races were as much of a David vs Goliath story as Cuccinelli vs McAuliffe. Despite the downpour of big Democratic money, and the presence of the Clintons and Obama himself, their weirdo extremist still came so close when it was all said and done. That will energize them, I guarantee it.
Discussions like this are what led the Ron Paul faction to run for party offices at all levels of the Republican organization, ultimately embedding itself in the institution's jugular and clearing way for homespun, grassroots candidates with more inflexible viewpoints. Paul's energized faction, and their resounding defeat in the 2008 Republican primaries, arguably resulted in the election of hyper-purists like Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, and over a dozen members of the House so nutty and fragrant you can smell the odd from four offices away.
After Tuesday night, I'm thinking that the Republican establishment is getting ready for round two.
Even so, the Pew Research Center released survey data last month showing just 30 percent of voters have a favorable view of the tea party, whereas 49 percent have a negative view of them. That's a significant shift from 2010, when they hit the shoreline harder than any part of the Republican wave. Nevertheless, Ted Cruz is an example of one tea party favorite whose chances of reelection became much stronger even in 2013, due in large part to his role in shutting down the government -- even at a cost of $24 billion to the private sector.
While voters in several states rebuked that brand of inflexibility on Tuesday, the question remains whether the Republican Party is ready to hear their message loud and clear. Therein lies the conundrum: Do hopeful lawmakers gun for office in heavily-gerrymandered districts by playing to Ted Cruz fans, like Cuccinelli did, or keep it cool, lay off the big dividing-line issues and try to be seen as willing to compromise, like Chris Christie did?
That's a divide that exemplifies the modern Republican Party better than any other I can imagine. If anything, I think the takeaway from Tuesday's election results is that we can expect the Republican Party's argument over these two vastly different philosophies to continue growing louder.
Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, creative commons licensed.