A number of political prognosticators are recapping Terry McAuliffe’s closer-than-expected victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election over Republican firebrand Ken Cuccinelli to mean a number of different things. Some believe that Cuccinelli’s radical views, particularly on abortion and contraception, demonstrate the Tea Party’s increasing unpopularity with the majority of Americans. Some see Cuccinelli’s lack of support from the Republican Party and his limited campaign donations as indicative that he could have won with a bit more backing. Others see the unexpected tightness of the race to mean that Republicans haven’t lost Virginia as badly as it may seem. Many conservatives think Republicans won a referendum on Obamacare. Liberals think they did. Some think libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis cost Cuccinelli the governorship (it didn’t). Yet others think it was Cuccinelli’s connections to current Governor Bob McDonnell’s scandal and the government shutdown that gave McAuliffe the victory.
There are plenty of views to go around. Guess what? All of them are pointless. This a time when the best thing to say is: I don’t know.
Virginia’s gubernatorial race was unique in that it pitted two candidates against each other who were both disliked by voters. Near the end of the race, Republicans foolishly shut down the government, something that they were blamed for and affected Virginia more than any other state thanks to its significant ties to federal agencies. Cuccinelli was painted as a radical social conservative, specifically on abortion, and did not harp Obamacare, as many Republican politicians have, until late in the race. McAuliffe brought in Democratic heavyweights including the Clintons and President Obama to campaign for him.
All of these things make it impossible to deduce national implications from this election. It’s almost impossible to deduce any implications for Virginia next year even.
Here are a few questions to think about:
- Would Cuccinelli’s Tea Party views have been rejected even more with a better Democratic candidate?
- Would a stronger, moderate Republican candidate have defeated McAuliffe and kept Virginia red?
- Would Cuccinelli have won, and thus demonstrated the Tea Party’s continued power, if he had more money and national support?
- Would a victory in that scenario have been a referendum on the Tea Party or just a result of a weak Democratic nominee?
There is almost nothing you can take from this race that has any meaning politically. It simply has too many outside factors that impacted it in ways that are impossible to take into account. A tweet from Jonathan Chait summed it up best:
Anyone trying to tell you what the Virginia gubernatorial election means for the Democrat or Republican Party is taking a guess. The truth is that there is no way to take a larger meaning from this race. Sometimes it’s best for political commentators to admit that they don’t know what the main takeaway is from a certain election. This is one of those occasions.
It is conventional wisdom right now that the Republican Party really needs to pass immigration reform in the next year or two. Mitt Romney struggled with Hispanics and as they become a larger part of the electorate, the Republican Party will struggle to stay competitive if it loses a significant portion of their vote. That’s why the RNC’s autopsy of last year’s election advised passing comprehensive immigration reform:
[W]e must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.
This is a widely held view amongst political pundits and policymakers alike. Democrats have put pressure on Republicans to pass an immigration bill, because they believe the worst-case scenario is a political victory where the House kills the legislation. It’s a win-win for them. Either they earn a major legislative accomplishment or a political victory.
All of these analyses are based on the fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of immigration reform to Hispanics and the many other reasons that Hispanics are turning away from the GOP. The Republican Party’s extremism is alienating many demographics, but commentators do not propose a single prescription to reverse those trends as they do with Hispanics and immigration. The reasons that so many Americans are becoming more supportive of Democrats are the same reasons that Hispanics are doing so: they agree with the Democratic Party on most issues.
Let’s start with the social ones. Exit polls from last year election found that 66% of Hispanics (including 64% of men) favored legal abortion while 59% said their state should legalize same-sex marriage. A more recent poll found Hispanics favoring same sex marriage by a 55-43 margin and opposing abortion by 52-46. Nevertheless, many pundits blindly assume that Hispanics are social conservatives. That’s clearly not true.
The same poll found that Hispanics rate unemployment, the quality of public schools, the deficit and the cost of college as more important to them than immigration. Nearly two-thirds of Hispanics think the government should invest more to spur economic growth instead of cutting taxes to do so. Fifty eight percent favored universal health care, although they were split on Obamacare.
In line with these findings, a ImpreMedia and Latino Decisions exit poll found that only 12% of Hispanics favor the current Republican policy line of reducing the deficit with spending cuts only. Forty two percent want a combination of both spending cuts and tax increases while 35% want to reduce the deficit entirely through higher revenues. The same poll found that 61% of Hispanics wanted to leave Obamacare in place, compared to 25% who wanted to repeal it.
Hispanics are not natural Republicans. Their opinions are very much in line with the rest of the nation, which mean that they currently favor liberal positions. The Republican Party’s problem with Hispanics is the same one that it has with other demographics. It’s taken extreme positions on a number of issues and refused to compromise. Passing immigration reform would earn the GOP more support from Hispanics, but so would supporting gay marriage and passing an infrastructure bill. The Republican Party can win back Hispanic voters in other ways without passing immigration reform, but it requires the party to compromise, something it has proven unable to do.
Luckily for the GOP, they have a perfect example of a candidate who has done so in Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor won reelection last night by 21 points, but most importantly he split the Hispanic vote in a very blue state. Josh Barro and Brett Logiurato reported from Union City, which is 85% Hispanic but has quite a few Christie supporters:
When we asked Union City rally attendees why they back Christie, they rarely cited policy specifics. Instead, four consistent themes emerged: They like and trust him personally; they appreciate his ability to forge bipartisan compromises; they think he did a good job handling Hurricane Sandy recovery; and they feel he has been available and treated their local governments well.
Christie worked across the aisle with the Democratic state legislature, responded impressively to Hurricane Sandy and is personally well-liked. This is a model for how national Republicans can win back Hispanics and voters of all ethnicities. It doesn’t require passing immigration reform. It does require actively trying to help people, instead of only shutting down the president’s agenda. As the Republican governor of a blue state, Christie has shown he is capable of doing that. He could win the presidency even if congressional Republicans doesn’t pass immigration reform. The Republican Party just has to give him a chance.
Albert Hunt had a column this past Sunday that made a surprising claim: Republicans are actually very lucky that Obamacare exists or else their internal fighting would be even more prominent. Here’s Hunt:
Republicans are thankful for President Barack Obama’s health-care law; it provides a respite from their bitter schisms.
The government shutdown and the near-default were devastating for the party. If it takes a drubbing, as expected, in the Virginia gubernatorial race this week, there will be fresh recriminations.
This is wrong. The bitter schisms exists because of Obamacare. Imagine what party unity would look like if Obamacare didn’t exist. There wouldn’t have been a disastrous shutdown fight that split the party into two factions, one looking to use it as leverage to stop Obamacare and another wanting to fight another day.
Many commentators have noted that the internal divisions in the Republican Party are mostly ones of tactics, not policy. John Boehner did everything in his power to keep his party unified by listening to the extremists. However, while this satisfied the Tea Party, it infuriated many Senate Republicans and moderates in the House. For Boehner, this was the better option, but the result is an establishment that says it is ready to take on radical candidates in primaries next year. Without Obamacare, none of these divisions take place.
The majority of Hunt’s column focuses on immigration reform and the dangers it pose politically for the Republican Party. This danger is magnified by Obamacare as well as the government shutdown that sent their favorability plummeting to historic lows. Without Obamacare, the party would have a higher approval rating and a bit more room to ignore popular policies such as immigration reform. The defund strategy only puts more pressure on the GOP to do something constructive for the country.
Hunt is correct that HealthCare.gov’s catastrophic start has given the party something to rally behind, but this “respite” is just that. It’s a small break from all the infighting over tactics that Obamacare has caused the GOP. On the contrary, the party would be more unified and in a much better position politically if the Affordable Care Act didn’t exist. Republicans certainly aren’t thankful for it.