November elections: reading the tea leaves

(Denver) I once lived in London for five years and one of the many things I admired about the British was the extraordinary speed and efficiency with which they conducted national elections: Six weeks of intense campaigning to fill all 630 seats in Parliament and then it was over for another five years.

By contrast in the United States the day after a new President is inaugurated every news program in the country is breathlessly reporting which future Oval Office aspirant was seen at a chicken bake in Iowa or snowshoeing through New Hampshire.

The pace of Presidential speculation now intensifies thanks to constitutional quirks in New Jersey and Virginia which hold Gubernatorial elections fully a year before the 2014 mid-terms. As always there are things to be learned from the results in these two bell weather states. So, let us gleefully join in reading the tea leaves to discern clues to the future.

Virginia has elected the “shadiest” Governor since New Jersey elected Jon Corzine. A man of little accomplishment and much baggage Terry McAuliffe was rejected by his own party in an earlier primary election and should have been an easy mark for a quality Republican candidate. Instead, McAuliffe won a race he comfortably led almost to the end. How he won gives us an excellent preview of how Democrats will approach the 2016 Presidential Election.

McAuliffe’s opponent was Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli who emerged from the Tea Party wing of the GOP and defeated the state’s Lt. Governor by getting the party to eliminate selection by Primary in favor of a state Convention. This tactic duplicated that of another Tea Party favorite- Utah Senator Mike Lee¬- who used it to oust veteran GOP Senator Bob Bennett.

For McAuliffe this was the gift that kept on giving throughout the campaign. It was easy to find Cuccinelli sound bites that could be distorted, and amplified in endless television- ads that painted the GOP nominee as a manipulative “extremist” just panting to renew the Republican Party’s well known “War on Women”. The ads were slick, imaginative, technically very well done and with a $34 million war chest (twice that of Cuccinelli) McAuliffe was able to saturate every corner of the state.

As if Cuccinelli didn’t have enough trouble, the Government Shutdown a month before the election devastated his campaign particularly in voter rich Northern Virginia where the Federal government is overwhelmingly the area’s largest employer.

The Democratic template was succeeding brilliantly: Raise and Spend much more money, paint your opponent as a Tea Party wacko, demonize him on the social issues, expose him as a menace to women’s abortion rights, and tie him tightly to the wicked Republicans who shut down the government, and almost caused the first Default in American History.

What’s not to like? McAuliffe was heading for a landslide victory.

Then something peculiar happened. The government shutdown ended in late October and the national spotlight turned suddenly and intensely to the disastrous Roll-Out of Obamacare. A desperate Cuccinelli declared that the election should be a referendum on Obamacare which he had opposed and McAuliffe had supported. Within days McAuliffe’s double digit lead had vanished, and at 10 p.m. on Election night Cuccinelli was leading only to lose in the final count by little over two percentage points.

Meanwhile up North in New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie did win in a landslide of epic proportions (59% to 38%) and this in a state with 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republican. He won outright among women (over a female opponent), got nearly half of the Hispanic vote, and tripled his previous share of the black vote to 21%. Despite his well-known wars with public sector unions, particularly the teachers, he got 45% of the overall union vote.

He campaigned as a “pragmatic conservative” who got things done by knowing how to work with large Democratic majorities in the State Legislature. As a speaker he can be combative, but also persuasive, and as a highly effective campaigner his personality seemed to charm people across the spectrum. He condemns both political parties for gridlock in Washington, frequently praises his mother, and even makes jokes about his own ample girth.

What to make of Christie? He’s clearly running for President. The Democrats are already working overtime to dig up dirt on him, but they know he’ll be very difficult to demonize, particularly because he’s never made “social issues” central to his campaigns.

Though Christie is pro-life and anti- gay marriage, the Republican base is unhappy that he refuses to make these social issues central to his campaigns. The conventional wisdom is that this circumstance would make him unacceptable to GOP primary voters.

There’s something else to think about though, particularly in light of Obama’s determination to remake the country by regulatory fiat even if he can’t get his way with Congress.

Democrats have controlled the Executive Branch for just 16 of the last 44 years. They haven’t had more than eight years in a row since the Roosevelt-Truman era (1933-1953) which firmly laid the foundation of the Entitlement State.

Think what 16 years of Obama +Hillary could mean for the country. That might be a little more alarming than a Jersey Guy who tells us Presidents have little direct influence on social issues but a lot of influence on debt, deficits, taxes, judicial appointments, Health Care, and above all Federal Regulation.

Ronald Reagan famously said “A man who is with me 70% of the time is my friend” and “I’d much prefer the proverbial ‘half a loaf’ to going over the cliff with all flags flying”.

Words to ponder seriously.

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William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.

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