In the immediate aftermath of the 2013 elections, which Tuesday night saw New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie handily re-elected and Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe swept to a narrow victory, Democrats and Republicans alike are beginning to look for lessons to apply to the next, higher-stakes races of 2014.
For Democrats, McAuliffe's victory in Virginia over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli -- though only by about 55,000 votes -- could hint at how politically toxic the issue of Obamacare will be in 2014 and, in the same vein, whether attacks on Republicans as ideologues will hold up.
“Ken Cuccinelli made this race a referendum on Obamacare. Democrats made it a referendum on Tea Party extremism and the government shutdown,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said Wednesday. “We won.”
The Democratic attacks against Cuccinelli as a totem of ideological extremism stuck, some Republicans said, because Cuccinelli failed to aggressively counter them — a cautionary tale for candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections.
“Democrats bludgeoned him as a woman-hating weirdo, and instead of giving women a positive reason to support him, he attacked McAuliffe,” said one Republican operative. “Democrats attacked (Republican Virginia Gov.) Bob McDonnell as being anti-woman in 2009, except the charges didn't stick because 'Bob was for jobs.’ He gave them a positive alternative and proactive reason to support him.”
Indeed, exit polls show that abortion was the most important issue for 20 percent of Virginia's voters — convincing evidence that McAuliffe's attacks on Cuccinelli as staunchly opposed to abortion and a poor steward on women's health issues were effective.
But while Virginia's race could be an important test case for both parties as they plan for 2014, Christie's easy re-election in blue New Jersey may be less instructive for Republicans intent on dethroning Democratic incumbents and seizing control of the Senate.
Christie won by a historic margin, capturing nearly two-thirds of Tuesday's vote. But his success was due in large part to his own popularity and a weak opponent, a combination Republicans are unlikely to recreate elsewhere.
The one lesson the national party can take away from Christie's race, his campaign aides said, was that Christie was successful because of his moderate, pragmatic message he brought to voters. At a time when conservatives are pushing the GOP further to the right, Christie's strategy could serve as a template for Republican races in Democratic or swing states — a possibility that Democrats are watching closely.
"Christie ran as a moderate and so did Terry McAuliffe," said Doug Thornell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman now with the consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker. "That’s something that both parties should remember. Moderate voters are becoming a larger chunk of the electorate and will be key swing voters in 2014, and they’re looking for candidates that they can support and agree with."
"The question for Republicans in some of these tough Senate and gubernatorial races is, are they capable of moving to the middle?" Thornell said. "I don’t think they are, and I think the outcome in Va. is a great example of that."
Republicans insist their loss in Virginia was the result of money and not personalities. McAuliffe, a long-time Democratic Party fundraiser, outspent Cuccinelli 2-to-1. And that, NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins said, is a “continuation of the iron rule that the candidate with the most money wins.”
“McAuliffe had a lot more money," Collins said, "and that was a problem for (Cuccinelli).”
In addition to funding a barrage of attack ads, McAuliffe used that cash to counter one of the greatest challenges he faced in an off-year election: voter turnout. There was a chance that Cuccinelli's conservative supporters would turn out in droves and shift the direction of the race, but McAuliffe prevented that outcome by building an energetic get-out-the-vote effort.
Higher turnout in presidential election years tends to favor Democrats, and McAuliffe's team worked hard to drive to the polls an electorate that rivaled the 2012 election. It's a strategy Democrats are likely to turn to in 2014.
In red states in off-year elections, according to Colm O’Comartun, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, “a great turnout operation can produce great results for Democratic candidates," as McAuliffe's campaign proved.
This story was first published at 5 a.m.