Judgement Day: what this week’s elections might tell us about 2016

Foreign Affairs & Security
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
Brian Cattell

Two contrasting gubernatorial races and the strange course of the contest to be New York’s next mayor may do little to excite the masses across America. But they will provide crucial pointers for the bigger electoral battles to come in 2014 and for the Presidential poll of 2016. What’s more, they could even turn out to offer some welcome good news for the GOP.

America’s off-year elections, those taking place in an odd numbered year can sometimes struggle to generate excitement among the broad spectrum of voters. If they come just after the presidential election, the occupant of the White House is determined for the next three years, and the mid-term polls that can re-shape Congress are still a year away. And, generally, of course, they are elections affecting only state or municipal office. So why get excited?

Well, this week’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and even the New York mayoral race could have a major impact on how the American political landscape unfolds between now and 2016.

Chris Christie, the portly but personable Republican governor of New Jersey, is cruising towards a comfortable victory over his low-profile Democrat challenger Barbara Buono. However, in Virginia, Tea Party candidate Ken Cuccinelli is struggling to gain traction against Clinton family friend Terry McAuliffe, whom he continues to trail in opinion polls.


Meanwhile, the city that never sleeps is poised to elect little-known left winger and Ken Livingstone-wannabe Bill de Blasio.

America’s liberal-leaning media sees in all of this a triumph of the Left and loudly proclaims a new paradigm for U.S. elections: the only Republican that can have a hope of getting elected, they say, is one like Christie who is really a liberal; the Tea Party is showing itself as unelectable in a state Republicans should win; and New Yorkers are choosing a true socialist-progressive to roll back the pragmatic reforms of the Bloomberg years and share Wall Street’s prosperity with the City’s poor.

Such an analysis is not only highly selective, it is aimed very deliberately to sow the seeds of division among the American Right.

Despite the self-serving view of Christie that some American pundits on both the right and the left have taken, a closer look at the governor’s record reveals a man of strong, straight-down-the-line conservative credentials. He has championed fiscal responsibility in his state by resisting tax-increases and cutting wasteful spending; promoted pro-growth policies including cutting business taxes; and waged an uncompromising battle against the suffocating influence of public sector unions.

A comfortable Christie victory in a “Blue” state should be a beacon of hope for the Republican Party – not a cause of despair among its Tea Party wing. For it shows that, even in such tough territory, a majority of the electorate will choose a candidate who is pro economic growth and entrepreneurship, pro personal responsibility,  and willing to take on the vested interests of the Left.

But, the messenger and the way he communicates does matter. As a straight-talking “Jersey Boy”, Christie could not be further away from the negative Republican stereotype America’s liberal media likes to portray. As such, he connects profoundly with voters across the political, socio-economic and ethnic spectrum. To be able to do that is a rare talent. The fact that Christie enjoys the support of 30 percent of New Jersey’s African American voters tells you all you need to know – repeated nationwide those kind of numbers would sweep the GOP back into the White House.

So what of Cuccinelli’s troubled campaign? The question is whether this is a one-off race or one that can be helpfully extrapolated to the wider picture across the country. A number of factors suggest the former. In fact, recent history suggests that Virginia is a state where one should expect a highly competitive battle between Democrats and Republicans – and that is exactly what is happening. Add to that some residual ill feeling over last month’s government shutdown, as well as Cuccinelli’s personal failure to connect with voters on mainstream issues such as the economy, and his individual struggle becomes understandable. But certainly not suggestive of decline of the Tea Party as a grass roots force of evangelical zeal.

No, whatever happens to Cuccinelli, the Tea Party will remain a strong force in the Republican movement. It is not the promotion of core conservative principles that would have let the Democrats in, but rather the quality of this particular candidate and his campaign.

Finally, a word on de Blasio. Six months ago, New York’s Public Advocate would have been recognised by few of the city’s residents. But an initially unlikely series of events, including the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal; the implosion of front-runner Christine Quinn’s campaign amid an anti-Bloomberg backlash; and the incredibly lacklustre showing of the African-American candidate Bill Thompson, all combined to hand de Blasio the Democratic nomination. Barring a freak occurrence, he will beat Republican nominee Joe Lhota this week to win the keys to the Gracie Mansion.

Commentators are already lining up to denounce de Blasio as a disaster for New York – and based on his campaign promises it’s not hard to see why. He has vowed to tax the city’s moneyed class as much as he can in the name of redistributive social justice; he will reverse the highly successful policing policies of outgoing commissioner Ray Kelly in homage to political correctness, and is also looking to pull the rug from many of the city’s successful charter schools to keep his union pals happy.

Time will tell how this all works out. Decades of Democrat misrule over Detroit’s municipal government has not yet damaged the party at national level. But mess up America’s biggest and most important city and it will be a very different story.