On Tuesday, there was an election. Well, for those of you who lived in the right state. Because there were really only three elections that are worth noting:
New Jersey Governor: Chris Christie was running for President, sorry, a second term as Governor of New Jersey against Barbara Buono. Tell the truth, did you even know who Christie’s opponent was before you read this post?
New York City Mayor: Wall Street and Stop-And-Frisk critic Bill de Blasio got a come-from-behind victory in the primary and went on to win the general election against someone who definitely wasn’t Anthony’s weiner.
Virginia Governor: With Bob McDonnell forbidden from running for a second term, evangelical Ken Cuccinelli won the Republican nomination. He was defeated by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.
Two of these races were no surprise. Governor Christie’s close work with President Obama to repair the damage done to NJ by Hurricane Sandy, not to mention an almost Clintonian slyness in choosing when to fight and when to retreat (as he did on the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and his appeal of a judge’s gay marriage ruling this year), left him an extremely popular Governor who Democrats barely even tried to beat. Although progressives are psyched for de Blasio’s win, the reality is that the real fight was in the primary. Though centrist Republicans were once able to win in NYC by emphasizing the Big Apple’s high crime rates, decades of reduced crime, and more importantly, the overshadowing of crime by corporate power and income inequality, and the next Mayor was probably always going to be a Democrat.
Hence, VA was the tie-breaker. A swing state, it’s not a bad indicator of the rest of the country. It was expected to be a quick victory for McAuliffe because it happened right after the government shutdown. So when Cuccinelli took an early lead, the networks paid it little mind. McAuliffe would pull away when the culturally northeastern areas started coming in, but he didn’t. Only near the end did McAuliffe pull out a narrow victory.
Actually, not all the polls were wrong. The Real Clear Politics (RCP) average had McAuliffe ahead by 6.7% of the vote on average, but I remember two or three late polls that had McAuliffe up by only a point or two. They were the ones that got it right.
So how did McAuliffe almost blow a sure thing? It probably has little to do with him and everything to do with what’s been going on. He got a lucky break with the government shutdown, but then came the botched opening of the Affordable Care Act. First, a site that doesn’t work. Then some people’s insurance plans were screwed with, giving Obama a “read my lips” moment. The effect of all this? After the Republicans sent their poll numbers to historic lows, Obama’s approval ratings are as low as the 30s.
And the effect on VA was clearly profound. After both parties had f*cked up, this reverted to the close race that it was once thought to be.
So what does it mean? Immediately speaking, the Dems are helped. They get one more Governor and while VA Republicans can point to the narrow margin and the fact they will control at least one level of the State Legislature, that’s not likely to do them much good. They can try to shut down VA’s government to avoid having to deal with McAuliffe, but by now, we have seen the folly of this strategy. In 1968, Dick Nixon won the White House in a very similar fashion, leading big almost all the way, only to beat Hubert Humphrey by less than a point and leave the Great Society Congress more or less intact as a last-minute breakthrough in the Vietnam peace talks narrowed things out. Despite that, Nixon enjoyed fairly high approval ratings in his first term, had a very respectable midterm election, and won reelection with ease.
The long-term ramifications are less clear. To study the trajectory of this race is to be forced to conclude that had the mainstream Bill Bolling been nominated instead of Cuccinelli (more on him later), had government not been shut down, had Republican leaders not given up on Cuccinelli too soon and stopped contributing (let it never be said that I don’t give the Tea Party its due), or maybe just had the campaign lasted another week of ACA bungling, Cuccinelli probably would have won. Some also say that Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis spoiled the election for Cuccinelli. I disagree. His positions weren’t socially conservative, a big part of Cuccinelli’s image. Cuccinelli needed well over two thirds of Sarvis’ votes to beat McAuliffe, assuming that, without Sarvis in the race, all of his voters still would’ve voted. Not very likely.
Nevertheless, let’s not ignore the 36-year figure. For that much time, whenever a presidential election occurred, the losers would win in VA a year later. That is, until just now. The reason may be that, since VA is right next to DC, it’s a rebellious state that can be quite friendly to third party candidates (that’s one tradition that didn’t change last Tuesday). Cuccinelli’s radical position are a good explanation for this aberration. I could be mistaken, but I don’t think that comparing abortion to slavery is the best plan to win those unattached, partying women of northern VA. Just a thought.
Another thing to note is that despite the horror stories about to ACA rollout, if you look at RCP’s average of polls on the legislation, its popularity is not falling (hat tip: Rachel Maddow, but be warned that the link is to a twenty-minute video). If anything, it’s actually improving. This is remarkable. This has been a comedy of errors that the media is shocked and appalled by. Meanwhile, the right is behaving like a knight that just slew a dragon. As pure politics go, the ACA is clearly a long way from the point of no return. Obama certainly is suffering politically, but that will only last as long as these problems do.
So my conclusion is that 2014 is a lot about fixing the ACA. If the Obama administration pulls this off within the next six months, the victory Democrats giddily anticipated during the shutdown may be coming after all. If not, a Republican Senate and nearly veto-proof House wouldn’t shock me.