Before talking history, let’s review what happened this week in the two US states that chose governors. In Virginia, Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli narrowly lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, while New Jersey voters reelected incumbent Republican Chris Christie by a landslide over Democrat Barbara Buono. Mr. Christie is much more pragmatic than hardliner Cuccinelli, who had tea party backing, but beware of reading too much into their divergent fates. Mr. Cuccinelli’s defeat does not mean that strong conservatives are doomed in competitive races, nor does Christie’s victory guarantee that he is heading for the White House.
Cuccinelli had several problems. Term-limited Republican governor Bob McDonnell faced ethics issues that ruled him out as a Cuccinelli campaign surrogate and tarnished the state GOP’s credibility. The party was divided, with some key officeholders declining to endorse Cuccinelli. Democrat McAuliffe, a wealthy businessman and former chair of the Democratic National Committee, was able to raise a huge amount of money.
Cuccinelli’s heaviest burden, however, was his reputation as an ideologue who put social issues first. Throughout his political career, he made his name as a vocal opponent of abortion and homosexuality and a supporter of abstinence-only sex education. Though he tried to pivot to economic issues during the campaign, his record stuck to him. As Republican political analyst Lloyd Green wrote, “He pushes the social hot buttons that make libertarian voters cringe and suburbanites say ‘no thank you.’”
McAuliffe had some serious weaknesses, but his business record enabled him to run as a pragmatic problem solver. Meanwhile, his opposition research and advertising operations successfully portrayed Cuccinelli as an extremist. In a swing state with an increasingly diverse electorate, candidates seen as “Mister Fix-it” will usually beat those seen as “Mister Crazy.”
It might be tempting to conclude that the Big Lesson of the Virginia race is that Republicans can win swing states only by nominating candidates with moderate-to-liberal views on social issues. That’s not true at all. Social conservative Scott Walker won the governorship of Wisconsin in 2010, and then survived a recall attempt two years later. Other conservatives have also won swing-state governorships. They have done it not by abandoning their beliefs, but by showing how their policies can improve the lives of everyday people.
The most famous example of this approach is Ronald Reagan: Years before his two terms as president, he won two terms as governor of California. Back in Reagan’s day, California was not as strongly Democratic as it would later become, but it was not reliably Republican, either. Reagan won by stressing the problems that people talked about at their kitchen tables, especially crime and unemployment. And he did so with a confident, optimistic demeanor. Decades before Barack Obama ran on the slogan, Reagan was already winning with hope and change.
In New Jersey this year, Chris Christie relied on the Reagan model and won big. He talked about the specific things he has done for the state, especially during the recovery from hurricane Sandy. One of his campaign ads featured a copy of the plaque that sat on Reagan’s desk: “It Can Be Done.” Christie may hold socially conservative views (he is pro-life, with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, and opposes gay marriage) but those views weren’t the most prominent part of his reelection platform – or his record.
As he looks ahead to a possible presidential campaign, Christie is reportedly thinking of another model beyond Reagan. George W. Bush used his 1998 landslide reelection in Texas as a springboard to GOP presidential nomination, making the case that he was the most electable candidate in the party’s field.
The Bush parallel does not completely work to Christie’s advantage, however. One major reason for the size of Bush’s 1998 gubernatorial victory was the weakness of his opponent, who failed to attract the level of Hispanic support that a Texas Democrat needs. Two years later, when Mr. Bush ran for president, he did only slightly better among Hispanics than his father had in 1988, and actually lost the nationwide popular vote to Al Gore.
Christie, like Bush 13 years ago, had a less-than-stellar opponent. Barbara Buono lagged badly in fundraising, alienated potential allies, and spent part of her concession speech complaining about lack of support from her party. Another Democratic nominee could have meant a much tighter gubernatorial race in New Jersey.
Elections for governor are different from elections for federal office. Each has its own distinct issues and political dynamics. Governors can rise or fall because of concerns that are peripheral to national campaigns, such as road construction. Mitt Romney was a successful governor of Massachusetts, but the state rejected him in the 2012 presidential election. In Hawaii and Wisconsin, meanwhile, Republican former governors ran aground when they sought Senate seats and had to campaign on national issues.
As Christie was counting his votes, one datum should have given him pause: An exit poll showed that he would lose New Jersey to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a presidential race. The road to the White House will not be easy for him.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.