New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie cruised to re-election Tuesday, giving Republicans a bright spot in an off-year election, while Terry McAuliffe eked out an unexpectedly close win against Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in the race for Virginia governor.
Mr. Christie's 20-point win demonstrated how Republicans can win in blue states and potentially positioned him as a counterweight to the tea party in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries.
In Virginia, the results were a far cry from four years ago, when Republicans swept the top three statewide offices.
Mr. McAuliffe, who had been ahead in polls by as much as 8 percentage points in the closing days of the election, won by about 40,000 votes — or less than 2 percentage points out of about 2 million ballots cast.
A hoarse Mr. McAuliffe, speaking at the Sheraton Premiere in Tyson's Corner, thanked his family and his supporters and Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for him.
"The truth is this election was never a choice between Democrats and Republicans, it was [about] whether Virginia would continue the bipartisan cooperation that has served us so well."
The Democrat withstood a late charge by Mr. Cuccinelli, who found success near the end of the campaign painting the race as a referendum on President Obama's health care reform. The Republican lost ground during the partial federal government shutdown last month, for which polling had shown voters held the GOP disproportionately accountable.
Mr. Cuccinelli was dramatically outspent by Mr. McAuliffe, and out-of-state entities such as a group affiliated with New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg poured millions of dollars into the race.
Third-party candidate Robert Sarvis pulled about 7 percent of the vote — enough, as many predicted, to swing the contest despite Mr. Cuccinelli's efforts to siphon off the Libertarian's supporters.
"I'm proud that we ran on first principles and serious ideas based on [those] first principles," said an emotional Mr. Cuccinelli, who thanked his wife, Teiro, his family and many others. "This is no ordinary governorship."
Republican lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson lost to Democrat Ralph S. Northam, 55 percent to 45 percent, potentially costing Republicans the tie-breaking vote in a state Senate that is deadlocked between the two major parties.
Republicans were left to pin their hopes of avoiding a sweep of the top three statewide offices on attorney general candidate Mark D. Obenshain, who led Democrat Mark R. Herring by less than 1 percentage point — a margin that automatically triggers a recount.
But the Democratic wins amounted to a repudiation of Republicans, who just four years ago were celebrating the victories of a slate of GOP candidates — Gov. Bob McDonnell, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and Mr. Cuccinelli.
The win reversed a trend dating back to the 1970s of the party opposite the one occupying the White House winning the governor's race the year after a presidential election. It also marked the first time since the 19th century that a party has lost control of the state's Executive Mansion after just one term.
Soon after the polls closed, Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Pat Mullins addressed a crowd still filling into the downtown Richmond Marriott. His message was clear.
He called the campaign the "dirtiest, most divisive, most despicable campaign" he had seen in all his years of politics, with Mr. McAuliffe's run serving as little more than a subterfuge for a 2016 presidential run for former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"Our candidates are decent, honest family men … but for the last six months they've been nonstop demonized by Democrats," Mr. Mullins said. "We hate women, we hate minorities, we hate everything — but that's not who these people are."
The struggles of the three conservative Republicans suggest the party has a lot to learn from 2013 — a race that exposed a rift within the GOP on the heels of Democratic wins in the past two presidential elections and last year's U.S. Senate race.
One lesson, according to analysts: The party needs to be more inclusive.
The decision to hold a convention rather than a primary to select its slate of candidates all but assured Mr. Cuccinelli the gubernatorial nod. Mr. Bolling eventually dropped out of the race, ascertaining that he could not win in such a forum.
But it also allowed a small group of hard-core activists to nominate Mr. Jackson for lieutenant governor out of a crowd of seven candidates to run against Mr. Northam, and Democrats relentlessly lumped in the entire GOP ticket with Mr. Jackson's comments likening Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan and derogatory remarks he made about gay people.
"[F]or Republicans to be competitive, they've got to carry states like Virginia, and they're not going to do that with just a hard-right stance," said former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a moderate Republican who represented the D.C. suburbs for many years before retiring in 2008.
The national GOP has consistently said that while it might not control the White House or the levers of power in the U.S. Senate, Republican governors and state legislatures are getting results.
But in Virginia, the party now must carefully assess the electorate as it evolves, said Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
"This is a much more diverse state now," said Mr. Rozell. "It is a much friendlier territory to progressive and moderate voters than anyone predicted as few as 10 years ago. Obama's two victories were very telling. No Democrat had won in the state since 1964. Some Republicans were in denial. They said 2008 was an aberration.
"Well, Obama won twice," he said. "It seems to me this cycle is a big wake-up call for the Republican Party to acknowledge the changing electorate of Virginia and think seriously about the nominating process for picking candidates."
Former Gov. James S. Gilmore III rejected the idea that Republicans and conservatives have to moderate their essential beliefs to be successful, but he acknowledged that they need to deliver their message better.
"We begin to enter into a new debate within the Republican Party — whether or not we have to move to the left in order to get elected in Virginia," he said. "I reject that. I believe you can still run as a conservative in Virginia and win."
Mr. Gilmore said it's not as simple as tailoring the party's message to a specific audience, but rather listening to specific concerns and responding accordingly.
"There is not a single voter in Virginia that is not receptive to a conservative case to be made as long as it affects their life in a positive way," he said. "At the end of the day, the people of Virginia are going to vote for the candidate who they believe will have a positive impact on their lives."
Mr. Cuccinelli was helpless, to a certain extent, to big money from Mr. McAuliffe's campaign and national liberal-leaning super PACs that defined him as an intransigent roadblock to compromise beholden to the interests of the tea party.
He broke with Mr. McDonnell on many issues including, as Mr. McAuliffe repeatedly pointed out, the $6 billion transportation package passed by the General Assembly this year. With ethical scandals shadowing Mr. McDonnell, such positive accomplishments were largely relegated to the sidelines as well.
"I think there were great mistakes made in this election, particularly as it relates to Cuccinelli, who didn't run on the record that Bob McDonnell had set forth, nor did he distance himself significantly away from the tea party," former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, told CNN on Tuesday. "The tea party is fine. It's good. It's nice to have that. But when your identification is such that it's divide-and-conquer or division or ours or none, it's not going to be good."
Mr. McDonnell said Tuesday after exiting the voting booth that the next governor will have to unite Virginians.
"Get people to work together — focus on solving problems, not on speeches and scoring political points," he said. "And remember that you've got a Republican House and you've got a split Senate and you've got to get Democrats and Republicans to work together. It doesn't really matter who gets the credit. But if you don't, people get equally invested in the outcome so you're not going to get good results. That's why we've gotten a lot of things passed."
Mr. Gilmore gave a noncommittal view of the party's future, both in the state and nationally.
"I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but I'm realistic about the divisions," he said. "What I am is resolute. I am resolute that the party has got to start presenting conservatism in an acceptable way, or we will not succeed in the future."
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