- - Thursday, November 7, 2013

The national news media’s liberal spin on Tuesday’s off-year elections focused on the Republican loss in Virginia, insisting it demonstrated the GOP is still on a steep, downward slide.

However, the political reality behind what happened this week tells a far different story that suggests it’s the Democrats who are in trouble, from the statehouse to the Obama White House.

Certainly, Republican state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia governor’s race, but far more narrowly than the polls had predicted. This came despite the fact that he was vastly outspent by Bill and Hillary Clinton’s shadowy, big-money man, Terry McAuliffe, and was unable to get his message out on television.

To be sure, Mr. Cuccinelli had his own political weaknesses. He lost the women’s vote badly as a result of a barrage of TV ads that focused entirely on abortion, birth control and other women’s issues. He lost the state’s Hispanic vote big time, because they saw him as virulently anti-immigration reform.

For much if not most of the election cycle, his message on jobs and tax cuts to spur the economy was drowned out by Mr. McAuliffe’s nonstop TV ads portraying Mr. Cuccinelli as “anti-woman” and “too extreme for Virginia.”

Throw in the politically damaging scandal over gifts that undermined Republican Bob McDonnell’s governorship, and that slightly tarnished Mr. Cuccinelli, too, and the Democrats were salivating over their hopes for a landslide victory.

In the end, however, Mr. McAuliffe narrowly won by less than a 2.5 percentage-point margin. A CNN computer-drawn color map of the voter breakdown showed the state in a sea of GOP red, with the exception of just a few deep-blue urban centers, including heavily populated Fairfax County, that lies just outside of Washington, D.C.

What had happened to tighten a race that polls showed to be lopsided in Mr. McAuliffe’s favor, though less so in the final days of the campaign?

The big factor was certainly Obamacare, which exploded in the final weeks of the race into a political disaster that dominated the news and clearly hurt Mr. McAuliffe, who was one of its biggest boosters.

Insurance companies from New York to Florida were sending out notices canceling health care policies that did not meet benefit standards set by Mr. Obama’s rigid health care law. Insurance-policy premiums were shooting up to unaffordable levels. The administration’s online sign-up system turned into a bungled, unworkable mess that became the laughingstock of the country.

Mr. Cuccinelli and his campaign strategists were desperately looking for a way to counter Mr. McAuliffe’s vaunted lead and close the gap. In the last few weeks, he switched his core election message into a referendum on Obamacare, and the tide began to turn. Voters needed some way to show their angry opposition to Obamacare and send a message to Washington. For a lot of voters, Mr. Cuccinelli’s candidacy was the best vehicle to do that.

Meantime, Republican state Sen. Mark Obenshain won the attorney general’s race by just a few hundred votes, a contest that is headed to a recount. The state House of Delegates remains firmly in GOP hands with a two-thirds majority, while the state Senate, which was not up for election, remains politically divided with both parties holding 20 seats.

In overwhelmingly liberal New Jersey, it has turned out to be a far different story. There, Republicans have driven deep into Democratic territory — shaking Mr. Obama’s party to the rafters. Gov. Chris Christie cruised to a second term, beating his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, by more than 20 percentage points.

The national news media chooses to describe the New Jersey governor, a former U.S. prosecutor who put dozens of public officials — Republicans and Democrats — behind bars, as a pragmatic politician open to compromise.

He is, however, very conservative on key economic, law enforcement and public spending issues. He has cut taxes and the budget, battled with state employee unions over their excessive benefits, and brought his state back from the brink of the Great Recession.

Mr. Christie’s re-election showed that these bedrock issues do not appeal just to the GOP’s right wing, but to many swing Democrats, too. He won the support of 32 percent of Democrats on Tuesday, up from 24 percent in 2009.

His political appeal is much wider than even that. Exit polls on Tuesday showed him winning 57 percent of female voters, up from 12 percent last time. He also won 21 percent of black voters, up from 12 percent, and an astonishing 51 percent of Hispanic voters, up from 19 points.

Despite what the Washington news media want you to think, Mr. Christie is not at war with his national party, nor with its social conservative base. He made it clear throughout his campaign that he supports the right to life and was opposed to same-sex marriage. He ran flat-out on cutting taxes further to boost economic growth and create jobs, and cutting government spending, to boot.

No wonder Democratic leaders fear him and even now are plotting a major political assault on his governorship in anticipation of a bid for the White House in 2016.

These off-year elections tend to be overanalyzed, and sometimes their significance can be exaggerated. In this case, the parties split the difference in the governor races, but New Jersey far outweighs what happened in Virginia.

Mr. Christie, a shrewd and cunning operator, showed that government can work when you roll up your sleeves and are willing to step into the arena and fight for what you want.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cuccinelli learned a little too late that if he had made his campaign a referendum on Obamacare earlier, he probably would have won.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.