A Republican won big in New Jersey and a Democrat won a closer-than-expected race in Virginia. Below are some takeaways from each race, and what they might mean for elections in 2014 and 2016.
Virginia: Clinton Democrat Wins Close Race
President Obama won Virginia twice. Both US Senators from the state are Democrats. And now, longtime Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe squeaked out a 48-46% win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. A libertarian took over 6% of the vote. Despite these Democratic gains, Republicans kept control of the state House of Delegates by a large 2-1 margin.
Given the colliding set of circumstances it is difficult to use this race as a very good predictor for where the state is headed. Neither candidate was well-liked. A Public Policy Poll before the election had both candidates with 52% unfavorable ratings, while their favorable ratings were in the 36-39% range. This dislike of the candidates opened the door for a Libertarian candidate who siphoned off votes. Exit polls suggest the third party candidate's biggest chunk of support came from moderates and 18-29 year old voters. He also grabbed 8% of the liberal voter compared to 4% of the Republican vote. So, we'd guess that he did not cause the loss.
McAuliffe also enjoyed a big push nationally from the DNC and his Clinton allies. He outspent Cuccinelli by about $15 million according to most estimates. When polls over the final weeks showed a big and easy win for McAuliffe, the money and outside support seemed to disappear for the Republican. Those polls were wrong, and the lack of support was probably the biggest factor in the loss.
As for 2016 implications, Hillary Clinton was clearly interested in the outcome of this race. Given that McAuliffe enjoyed a huge money advantage, big name support, a right-leaning third party candidate, and a much more organized machine, the Democrat's near-loss is probably not comforting. And if the new Governor's term goes as well as all of his business dealings have gone, McAuliffe will be the Governor Hillary pretends not to know when she is campaigning. In the long run, an unpopular Democrat as Governor in an important state could hurt more than it helps, especially if he goes full-throttle on Obamacare over the next three years.
New Jersey: Chris Christie Wins with 60% of the Vote
A 22-point victory for a pro-life Republican in New Jersey is significant no matter how you slice it. Chris Christie doesn't shy away from the conservative label and actually gets mad if you say he isn't one. How conservative he is (or isn't) is a debate for another day, probably some day in early 2016.
Chris Christie's 60-38% win was a huge leap from the 2009 result when he won by a much closer 49-45% against a highly unpopular incumbent. So, it was a huge turn-around as Christie did well across all demographics, including those that typically favorable to Democrats.
The Christie win will undoubtedly bolster his profile ahead of 2016 as electability always plays a factor in presidential primaries. Mitt Romney won the 2012 Republican primary on the electability factor, but Christie's positioning is much more favorable: unlike Romney, Christie opted to run for re-election rather than leave after one term. Unlike Romney, Christie ran as a pro-life Republican, and won. He didn't wait until after his election to "evolve."
In reality, the two gubernatorial elections in 2013 offer little insight into what will happen in 2014 or 2016. A different Republican in Virginia might have easily won, while a different candidate in New Jersey would likely have lost. Perhaps the key takeaway is that personality matters. Cuccinelli was lackluster and easily caricatured. Christie followed up his big victory by going on late night talk shows and continuing to build his non-political public persona. In the age of the low-information voter, it's not exactly bad politics.