This was an election night that should have been sponsored by the Acela, Amtrak’s premium train running from Boston to Washington. This was politics Thirteen Original Colonies-style where most of the voters in key races live within an easy drive of the Atlantic Ocean. The obsession to find national meaning in the results is like betting the rent money on a crooked roulette wheel because it’s the only game in town.
The two governor’s races on the docket (New Jersey and Virginia) came out as expected, but less definitively than the pre-election buzz suggested. In Virginia, former national Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe eked out a narrow win over state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in a vitriolic race that made many voters wish for a none-of-the-above line on the ballot. As a measure of disaffection, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis picked up 7 percent of the vote and, according to exit polls, garnered 16 percent support among voters under 30.
Despite some polls showing that Chris Christie would be re-elected as New Jersey's governor by a two-to-one margin, he came nowhere near equaling the 70 percent share of the vote rung up by moderate Republican incumbent Tom Kean in 1985. In her concession speech, Barbara Buono, Christie’s ignored and under-funded Democratic challenger and a state senator, rightfully complained about her “onslaught of betrayal from our own party.”
Tuesday night’s results provided fodder for everyone’s political talking points.
Liberals could crow about new left-of-center mayors in New York and Boston. The Obama White House could point to McAuliffe’s victory margin in the Northern Virginia suburbs where pain from the government shutdown was disproportionately felt. And Republicans could take comfort in Christie’s big win in a blue state.
But, in truth, little from the Acela Election will matter much in next year’s congressional elections, let alone in 2016.
That’s not a surprise. Elections in odd-numbered year rarely have predictive value about the future, except when they do. The 2009 gubernatorial victories of Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in Virginia could be seen in retrospect as harbingers of swing-state disillusionment with Obama, which erupted with the Republican House takeover in 2010.
But the model for an off-year election with lasting national reverberations was a special Senate election in Pennsylvania in 1991. Democrat Harris Wofford, appointed as the temporary replacement when Republican Senator John Heinz died in a plane crash, stunned the political world when he romped home with a 10-point victory over popular former GOP Gov. Richard Thornburgh.
A year before Bill Clinton ended the 12-year GOP lease on the Oval Office, The New York Times called Wofford’s victory “a stunning upset that will raise the hopes of Democrats and the fears of Republicans facing elections next year.” James Carville and Paul Begala, soon to be architects of Clinton’s 1992 victory, got their big break by running Wofford’s 1991 campaign. And, by the way, Wofford’s central issue was national health insurance, a crusade that was to put its imprint on both the Clinton and Obama administrations.
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Chris Christie never made any secret that his 2013 goal was to use a gubernatorial re-election landslide as a springboard to a 2016 presidential bid. Any doubts on that score should have been erased when Christie — in defiance of logic and at a cost of $12 million to New Jersey — scheduled a special Senate election in mid-October so the governor would not appear on the same ballot as Cory Booker, the popular Democratic mayor of Newark.
In hindsight, Christie’s obsession with his own re-election margin may have cost the Republicans a long-shot chance at a Senate seat. Booker, even though he won with 55 percent of the vote, proved to be a much weaker candidate than his press clippings would have suggested. It is possible that Christie’s coattails might have pulled GOP Senate candidate Steve Lonegan across the finish line in what would have been the biggest upset since Scott Brown won a Massachusetts Senate seat in a January 2010 special election.
George W. Bush, as Christie and his advisers undoubtedly know well, teed up his 2000 presidential race by winning re-election as Texas governor in 1998 by better than a two-to-one margin. Another model (although rarely invoked by Republicans) is Michael Dukakis who won re-election as governor of Massachusetts in 1986 with a lopsided 65 percent of the vote. Two years later, Dukakis was the Democratic nominee for president.
Of course, even though Christie did not meet those gold standards for popularity, he was romping home in a normally safe Democratic state. Yet for all the swooning this week over Christie’s 2016 presidential prospects, it is worth remember that most gubernatorial landslides provide little momentum on the road to the White House.
Jon Huntsman (re-elected Utah governor in 2008 with a whopping 78 percent of the vote) never made it beyond the 2012 New Hampshire primary. And few people even remember that Bill Richardson (who won a second gubernatorial term in New Mexico by a better than two-to-one margin in 2006) ran for president in 2008.
These are, to be sure, flawed examples. Huntsman left Utah to serve as Obama’s first ambassador to China, a credential that did little to endear him to 2012 GOP voters. And Richardson ended up as an asterisk in 2008, in part because he had the bad luck to compete for the nomination against both Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The truth is that there is no automatic formula for running for president. Christie — who defies every bland-is-better and svelte-is-swell dictum of modern politics — would be a formidable 2016 contender no matter what his victory margin was over Buono. Christie’s 2013 vote totals will be about the 812th most important factor that will determine whether the New Jersey governor corrals the 2016 Republican nomination.
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You have to squint really hard into the fading autumn sunlight over the Hudson River to find national significance in Bill de Blasio’s election as New York City’s first Democratic mayor in two decades. De Blasio’s ultimate victory was all but foreordained when he won the low turnout primary in September (about 600,000 New Yorkers voted in a city of 8 million) as the candidate who appeared to represent the biggest break from imperious certainties of Mike Bloomberg.
The failure of Republican Joe Lhota, a former aide to Rudy Giuliani who headed the transit authority, to make inroads in this Democratic city should not be surprising. Giuliani himself was narrowly elected over a weak Democratic incumbent (David Dinkins) in 1993 largely because of fears of crime and urban decay. Bloomberg won re-election the last time around in 2009 with a weak 51 percent of the vote after spending more than $100 million of his own money.
All de Blasio’s victory proved was that it is hard to be a Republican in New York unless the city is facing a grave crisis or you happen to have a net worth of $31 billion (the latest Forbes magazine estimate of Bloomberg’s wealth). While de Blasio is a heart-on-his-sleeve liberal, he will move into the mayor’s residence at Gracie Mansion with only limited executive experience. That is the challenge facing New York’s incoming Democratic mayor, for as the disastrous rollout of Obamacare illustrates, good intentions are not enough when you are actually running the government.
Amid the euphoria of victory, de Blasio should remember an unpleasant truth that comes with one of the most demanding jobs in America. Since Brooklyn ceased to be a separate city in 1898, no mayor of New York has ever been elected to another office. Not Fiorello La Guardia, not John Lindsay, not Giuliani and probably not Bloomberg, an outgoing mayor without a political party or a logical next step.
There is an understandable impatience to decipher the national mood in a season when first the House Republicans (the government shutdown) and then the White House (launch of Obamacare) have undermined, and maybe even have forfeited, the trust of the voters. But sometimes politics is like the old-fashioned fortune-telling Magic 8 Ball delivering the Election Night message, “Reply hazy, try again.”