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Tuesday night’s election results held few surprises for politics-watchers around the country, but did offer some insights about the national political landscape heading into the 2014 and 2016 elections.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican incumbent, cruised to victory in typically-Democratic New Jersey, handily defeating his opponent, State Senator Barbara Buono, who received tepid support from the Democratic Party establishment. Christie parlayed a post-Superstorm Sandy appearance with President Barack Obama and some classic political horse trading to broaden his appeal to constituencies that have shirked the GOP in recent years—women, minorities, and young voters.
In Virginia, a swing state, longtime Clinton ally and former head of the Democratic National CommitteeTerry McAuliffe squeaked out a victory against attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a tea-party darling who turned off large majorities of women and moderate voters with heated rhetoric on abortion and gay marriage.
To many Virginians, both campaigns, at times, seemed in a race to the bottom, with voters pondering aloud which candidate could out-sleaze the other. And the battle between Cucinnelli and McAuliffe was often framed by national issues — like the tea party, the Affordable Care Act, and the shutdown — as much as about state-level policy. The race also drew plenty of big-name political figures, with former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden campaigning on behalf of McAuliffe, and former congressman and libertarian icon Ron Paul making appearances with Cuccinelli.
Christie’s victory in typically Democratic New Jersey elevates the perception of the governor as a top-tier contender for his party’s presidential nomination in 2016 — something Christie has hardly shied away from in the past, and seemed to wholly embrace in his victory speech Tuesday night.
His success also begs the question about whether his positioning as a no-nonsense, solutions-centered politician willing to cut deals with Democrats could be a model for a Republican Party struggling to reinvent itself for the next round of national elections. Despite New Jersey's unemployment rate being consistently worse than the national average, and many of Christie's positions on economic and social issues clashing with a majority of Garden State voters, the governor's popularity has steadily increased in the state, particularly in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“We stand here tonight showing that it is possible to put doing your job first,” Christie said in his election-night victory speech. “To put working together first. To fight for what you believe in yet still stand by our principles and get something done for the people who elected you.”
In Virginia, McAuliffe’s victory over Cuccinelli was not as resounding. Pre-election polls had shown the former DNC chair leading his GOP rival for months, but as votes were counted, McAuliffe needed a strong showing in his state's more liberal north to overcome an early evening lead by Cuccinelli. In the end, the Democrat won by under 2 percent over the Republican, with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis garnering over 6 percent — a stronger-than-expected showing.
Cuccinelli attributed the close margin at least in part to what he said was the unpopularity of President Obama's health care law.
"At the last count that I was aware of, despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," he said in his concession speech. "That message will go out across America tonight."
McAuliffe’s win was undoubtedly buoyed by Democratic voters in Northern Virginia as well as moderate Republicans and independents who were put off by the idea of a Cuccinelli governorship. Exit polls showed that a full third of those who had voted for Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell voted for Democrat McAuliffe in this go-around.
Republican hard-line politics also proved a liability down ballot. Virginia Lt. Gov. candidate E.W. Jackson, a Baptist minister with a history of inflammatory rhetoric toward the LGBT community, lost to his Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam. The Attorney General race between Democrat Mark Herring and Cuccinelli-ally Republican Mark Obenshain, however, was still too close to call with 99.5 percent of precincts reporting.
'A progressive path'
In the race for mayor of New York City, Democrat Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, beat Republican Joseph Lhota, the onetime head of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, by the largest margin in over thirty years. De Blasio, who campaigned hard against the legacies of the city's two most-recent mayors, Republican Rudolph Giuliani and Republican-turned-Independent Michael Bloomberg, pulled in over 73 percent of the vote, compared with Lhota, who embraced his ties to Giuliani and Bloomberg, and polled at just over 24 percent.
De Blasio's oft-repeated refrain in the race, "A tale of two cities," highlighted the growing economic disparity, lack of affordable housing and the racially charged "stop and frisk" policing that have left increasing numbers of New Yorkers disaffected with the state of the city after twelve years of Bloomberg rule.
"Make no mistake," de Blasio said in his victory speech, "The people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and tonight we set forth on it, together."
In Boston, Marty Walsh, a labor leader and member of the Massachusetts legislature, won the first open race for mayor in 20 years. Walsh beat fellow Democrat, City Councilor John Connolly, by just under 5,000 votes — roughly a 3.6 percent margin.
A union member since the age of 21, the 46-year-old Walsh enjoyed strong support from organized labor. Walsh, who is the son of Irish immigrants, won endorsements from prominent politicians of color in the city, and did well with voters in Boston's African-American and Hispanic communities, as well as in liberal neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain and his traditionally Irish-American home base of Dorchester.
The implications of these off-year elections for the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential race are far from clear — much can change over the next two years. But, at least in these four high-profile Atlantic coast contests, the importance of policy positions, as well as personae, raise possibly more pressing, if not predictable, questions about the influence of Tuesday's results on the political battles still to come in 2013.