On Election Day 2013, Tale of Two Republicans Highlights Split in GOP

PHOTO: Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a debate at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013. Chris Christie listens to a question in Trenton, N.J., Sept. 18, 2013.
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If the Republican Party is at a crossroads, two distinct paths are being blazed by two very different candidates on Election Day 2013.

In New Jersey, a pragmatic and often aggressive incumbent is poised to run up the score on the Democratic challenger -- despite the state's deep shade of blue.

In Virginia, a strong social conservative with tea party support is in real danger of losing to a flawed Democrat -- despite the state's history of electing governors from the party that's shut out of the White House.

The result is that the two "off-year" races that have long been viewed as national harbingers are instead offering lessons primarily to a Republican Party that's still engaged in a spirited fight for its own identity.

The split decision that's likely to emerge today seems certain to exacerbate tensions over which way Republicans should be headed, a year after an election debacle for the GOP, and a year before the midterm elections.

"If the polls hold true and [Ken] Cuccinelli loses, it shows that successful Republicans drive down the middle of the right-hand side of the road -- they don't drive off into the ditch on the right," said Whit Ayres, a veteran Virginia-based Republican pollster.

"It's hard to say that the Republican Party is in a stronger position today than a year ago," Ayres added. "But I'm hopeful that more and more Republicans are willing to see the light at the end of the long, dark tunnel."

That light will be shining on Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., whose 30-point-plus lead in pre-election polls leave him poised to become perhaps the biggest GOP winner in a trying year.

Christie's team is hoping for a win that will hold conservative voters and make deep inroads among Latinos, Democrats and independents -- proving that a certain style of leadership can overcome partisan leanings.

"His apparent success proves that people will reward decisive action and truth-telling, and that people are prepared to look beyond maybe their own party affiliations or even ideological predispositions where they see an instance of effective action in the public interest," said former Gov. Mitch Daniels, R-Ind., who is now president of Purdue University. "Plainly, that's what's going on when a guy like Gov. Christie is that successful in a state like the one he lives in."

Though Republican leaders rarely say so directly, the flip side of that success is evident in Virginia. The GOP candidate for governor, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has trailed consistently in polls against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, swamped by independents and female voters in particular.

Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent years, but Cuccinelli barely sought out the center. His campaign has been defined by his tea party ties and strong social conservative views, with late efforts aimed primarily at turning out the Republican base.

McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, was thought by many Democrats to be deeply flawed as a candidate, owing to a colorful business past and ties to the unsavory money side of politics. He didn't even make it through the Democratic primary when he ran for governor 2009.

On the eve of the election, though, McAuliffe aides see national implications in the fact that he's been able to reach moderate voters with a pro-jobs message, without sacrificing support inside the Democratic base.

"We have no real conflict in appealing to the base of our party and the center of the electorate," said Geoff Garin, McAuliffe's pollster. "Cuccinelli is emblematic of the Republican dilemma. It is impossible to do both of those things at the same time."

Though Republicans remain optimistic publicly about Cuccinelli's prospects, the second-guessing has already begun. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now a Virginia resident, said Cuccinelli appears to have been too badly outspent by a finely tuned Clinton-backed machine to overcome his own flaws as a candidate.

"If he does lose, it may say more about the candidate than the movement," Gingrich said Monday in an interview for the ABC News/Yahoo! News "Power Players" series. "No one survives a 25-to-1 disadvantage in funding [down the stretch]. And this is the first great victory of the Clinton march back to the presidency."

"If McAuliffe wins the governorship, he is a Hillary Clinton total devotee," Gingrich continued. "He will spend half of his time as governor trying to help her to win the presidency. And I think it is a sign of the power of the Clinton machine."

In New Jersey, meanwhile, Christie is building a machine of his own. A party that's seen its identity defined by tea party firebrands Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul counts among its stars a tough-talking Northeasterner who's proving he can win broadly in a blue state, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.

"Chris Christie has defined himself around this theme -- that he's the person that's different from the national party, the person who's distancing himself from extreme views," Zelizer said. "The message he wants is that his brand of Republican politics is nationally potent."

That won't necessarily convince a conservative base that sees Christie as a social moderate who criticized tea party leaders over the government shutdown -- and that remembers Christie's embrace of President Obama's leadership after Hurricane Sandy, Zelizer said.

"A lot of conservative Republicans will say, 'We won't care. Ted Cruz is our guy,'" he said.

In a sense, the election in Virginia is demonstrating one of Christie's biggest obstacles moving forward. Cuccinelli captured the Republican nomination at a party convention dominated by conservative activists, as opposed to through a traditional primary that would draw a broader swath of voters.

"Virginia Republicans made this far harder than this needed to be," said Ayres, the Republican pollster.

After John McCain fell short of the presidency in 2008 and Mitt Romney followed with a loss in 2012, the appetite for moderates is limited among Republican primary voters and caucus-goers.

The path for Christie, should he choose to pursue it, only gets tougher from here. Should he run for president, he will need to at least neutralize a tea party movement that's grown more restive during the second Obama term.

Winning, though, will likely help.

"He has a powerful platform from which to preach," Ayres said.

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