FALLS CHURCH, Va. — This fall’s races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey offer a revealing window into the fight for the future of the Republican Party.
Virginia’s illustrates the challenges facing the tea party movement and the fallout from the government shutdown while testing how well the GOP’s conservative wing can compete in a presidential swing-voting state. New Jersey’s highlights how a pragmatic Republican advocating for an inclusive GOP can dominate in Democratic territory.
In Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli – he promotes his role as the first state attorney general to challenge the health care overhaul – is struggling in polls against his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe. The former Democratic Party chairman has tried to link Cuccinelli to tea party luminaries like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and to the 16-day partial government shutdown.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie – he emphasizes a bipartisan approach – is seeking a second term. He holds a comfortable lead in surveys in the Democratic-leaning state, where he has drawn support from a broad coalition of voters across the political spectrum.
Both states will elect governors Nov. 5 following a showdown in Congress that highlighted a deep division within the Republican Party.
Taken together, the two races show the two sides of a red-hot internal debate in the GOP. Conservatives and the tea party argue that the party needs to hold firm to its principles while moderate, business-friendly Republicans seek a more results-oriented approach that appeals to a diverse electorate.
Judging by history and surveys with two weeks to go, the outcomes could be unusual.
Virginia has elected a governor from the party not occupying the White House in every gubernatorial election since 1977. A McAuliffe victory would break that trend. In New Jersey, Christie is trying to become the first Republican governor to win with more than 50 percent of the vote since Tom Kean in 1985.
Republicans are closely watching the races for clues to help craft the party’s playbook in next year’s midterm elections. Nasty GOP primaries already are shaping up as tea party-backed challengers prepare to take on congressional incumbents with ties to the party establishment. In recent weeks, business-friendly candidates have started to step forward in some districts to challenge tea party lawmakers.
Cuccinelli’s campaign has been hurt by a political scandal involving accusations of lavish gift-giving by a political supporter to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and his family. Cuccinelli himself had accepted more than $18,000 worth of gifts from the supporter, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., and his company, nutritional supplements maker Star Scientific Inc., then gave a Richmond charity $18,000 after criticism of McDonnell grew.
But the Virginia attorney general’s aggressive pursuit of conservative voters who comprise the Republican base has irked some party leaders. Those leaders have watched McAuliffe present himself as a business-friendly moderate in a state that Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. At the same time, Christie has competed for women, black and Latino voters in New Jersey – key components of Obama’s coalition – and highlighted endorsements from Democratic officials.
“Beating McAuliffe should not have been hard,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. “Virginia Republicans decided to go one way and the New Jersey Republicans decided to go another way. It seems to be working in one state and not working in another.”
The off-year gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey often act as early warning signs for the political parties entering midterm elections for the House and Senate. In 2009, victories by Christie and McDonnell a year after Obama’s election served as a precursor to the tea party movement and unrest over the president’s health care plan .
Polls have shown Cuccinelli trailing McAuliffe among women and independents. Some of his defenders say the McDonnell gift scandal has been virtually impossible to escape.
“That scandal and the way it played out over the summer would have badly damaged a Chris Christie-like candidate in Virginia, let alone Ken Cuccinelli,” said Republican strategist Sara Fagen.
Republicans say the government shutdown also has taken a toll.
In Sterling, Va., on Monday, Cuccinelli declined to take a position on the compromise that ended the shutdown. Instead, he has played up his efforts to overturn the national health care law and energize tea party supporters.
“We don’t win every time. But you don’t win any fights you don’t get in,” he said.
In New Jersey, Christie has tried to distance himself from the GOP’s most conservative members as he faces Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono.
The governor was 40 miles away when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headlined a tea party rally earlier this month. Instead of joining Palin, Christie addressed Hispanic leaders.
Christie’s advisers say he has governed as a conservative without antagonizing Democrats. His response to Superstorm Sandy remains a constant refrain, allowing him to talk about working with Obama.
While Christie vetoed a bill that would have legalized gay marriage, he dropped his appeal on Monday, saying the court had made clear its views on gay marriage.
“We’re a minority party in this state. … We’re never supposed to win,” Christie told supporters in East Brunswick, N.J. “There will be people from all over the country, Republicans from all over the country, who are going to come here and say, ‘How did this happen? How did you all do it?'”
He continued: “It’s possible for Republicans anywhere in the country to be able to do this.”
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