The election results last week were a mild net plus for conservatives — if the gains aren’t frittered away by conservatives who’d rather whine than win.
The most obvious reason for the surprisingly narrow defeat of Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race was the presence of an ersatz Libertarian candidate — heavily bankrolled by a wealthy Obama supporter — who took 6.52 percent of the vote, permitting Democrat Terry McAuliffe to eke out a 47.74 percent to 45.25 percent win.
Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign spent nearly twice as much as did Mr. Cuccinelli’s.
The Republican National Committee, which gave $9 million to Gov. Bob McDonnell when he ran four years before, contributed just $3 million to Mr. Cuccinelli, prompting charges from the conspiratorally minded the GOP establishment wanted him to lose.
The Republican Governors Association, the principal “establishment” source of funding for gubernatorial races, gave $8.5 million to Mr. Cuccinelli, much more than the Democratic Governors Association gave to Mr. McAuliffe.
Tea Party groups making this charge didn’t contribute anything to Mr. Cuccinelli, who raised $1 million less from Virginians than Mr. McDonnell had.
Mr. Cuccinelli’s fund-raising woes were intensified because until the final week, polls indicated Mr. McAuliffe would win in a landslide. People tend not to open their wallets for those they think are sure losers.
Mr. McAuliffe’s poll numbers were fattened by a backlash against Republicans from the government “shutdown.” Government employees were about the only people to suffer from it, but half a million of them live in northern Virginia.
The Democrat’s mammoth fund-raising advantage permitted him to “define” Mr. Cuccinelli. But Mr. Cuccinelli himself contributed much to the negative impression so many Virginians had of him. By all accounts, he ran a poor campaign, and his get out the vote operation was even more anemic than Mitt Romney’s had been. On Election Day, 37 percent of voters were Democrats, just 32 percent were Republicans.
Through no fault of his own, Mr. Cuccinelli also suffered from a scandal enveloping Mr. McDonnell, which tarnished the Republican brand.
Add to that demographic changes which are converting the Old Dominion from a purple to a light blue state, and it isn’t hard to figure out why Mr. Cuccinelli lost. It’s harder to explain why he nearly won.
That almost certainly is blowback from the botched rollout of Obamacare, which bodes well for GOP prospects next year — if Republicans can refrain from forming a circular firing squad yet again.
Meanwhile, in deep blue New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie was re-elected in a landslide. After his (literal and figurative) embrace of President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Mr.. Christie became a controversial figure among conservatives. But those who call him “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) or “squish” prefer invective to facts.
Mr. Christie has governed effectively as a fiscal conservative, winning major budget cuts and facing down public employee unions despite large Democrat majorities in the Legislature. His positions on abortion and same-sex marriage are essentially the same as Mr. Cuccinelli’s. What was different, noted Michael Barone, was their tone. That was important. Mr. Cuccinelli lost among single women by 42 percentage points. Mr. Christie — who was running against a woman — narrowly won in that demographic.
This doesn’t mean conservatives should embrace Mr. Christie as their presidential candidate in 2016. But they should pay attention to why he was so successful.
The most hopeful election news came from Colorado, where an education “reform” initiative backed by Democrats and teacher unions was crushed, 66 percent to 34 percent, even though opponents were outspent, $10 million to $40,000.
Conservatives tend to do better on issue referenda because the principal Democratic strategy — aided and abetted by their friends in the news media — is to use their fund-raising advantage to “define” (demonize) GOP candidates, as they did with Mr. Romney last year and Mr. Cuccinelli this year.
This week’s elections illuminate a clear path to Republican victories in 2014 and beyond. Focus on issues. Express conservative positions in moderate tones. Respond immediately to efforts by Democrats and the news media to “define” GOP candidates. Don’t screw up GOTV, as Mr. Romney and Mr. Cuccinelli did.
Above all, remember it’s Democrats — not other Republicans — who are the enemy.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476.