Democrats, Republicans Split Election Wins In Virginia, N.J.

In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the state's gubernatorial race. In New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie was re-elected.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

To talk about what those two governors' races could mean for their parties, we're joined now by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: All right, tough loss for the Republicans in Virginia, but also an important win in New Jersey. How are Republicans processing this? What lessons are they drawing?

LIASSON: Well, this is a tale of two elections, to paraphrase Bill deBlasio. You had two very different models for Republicans - Tea Party conservative in Virginia, didn't work out so well in a purple state that's looking a little more blue this morning. And then you had a mainstream, pragmatic conservative in a blue state who made a real point of inclusion. Chris Christie held his last rallies before Hispanic audiences.

He ended up making history. He won more than 50 percent of the vote. That's the first time a Republican has done that, in New Jersey, in 30 years. So those are the two sides in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party that you're going to see play out over the next several years.

MONTAGNE: Though I wonder, was the Virginia loss a simple matter of Cuccinelli being too conservative in an increasingly purple state?

LIASSON: Well, that's the shorthand, and Terry McAuliffe did make the election a referendum on Cuccinelli; on his conservative stance on social issues, on his ties to Tea Party leaders like Ted Cruz. There were some unique things about the Virginia race, however. You had the popular Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell sidelined by scandal. You had the government shutdown, which was a much bigger factor in Virginia because there are 170,000 federal workers there.

And Cuccinelli, because of the shutdown, couldn't capitalize on the Obamacare troubles - although he did, as you heard in Brian's piece, say that's why the race tightened at the end, although it's not clear in a gubernatorial race whether Obamacare is as potent an issue. Also, Republicans are saying that Cuccinelli was badly outspent. Republicans didn't rally behind him and spend the kind of money that he needed.

But I do think that Virginia is a particularly stinging loss for Republicans. Terry McAuliffe was considered the weaker candidate. He'd never held office before. Cuccinelli was the AG; he had four years to prepare. And Terry McAuliffe had lost badly in the last Democratic primary for governor. And this is the first time in 40 years - in almost 40 years - in Virginia that the party not holding the White House has lost that governor's race.

MONTAGNE: Well, sticking with Republicans for the moment, what does this mean going forward for 2014, 2016?

LIASSON: Well, in 2014, I think Republicans who have been sounding the alarm bells about nominating candidates too far to the right, are going to get a bigger hearing for their warnings. Nominating Tea Party candidates in Delaware and Colorado and Nevada and Missouri and Indiana was how Republicans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the last two cycles.

For 2016, I think the most immediate result is that Chris Christie is now the front-runner of the establishment wing of the party. And he's made no secret of the fact that he's looking forward to doing battle with the Ted Cruzes and Rand Paul wing of the party.

MONTAGNE: Well, all very interesting, Mara. Let's give the Democrats a minute here, at least. What was their reaction to last night?

LIASSON: Well, this was a huge relief. The Democrats have had a terrible, terrible couple of weeks with all the political damage they've suffered because of the Obamacare rollout, and it doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon. So Virginia was a really important win for them. Now, they've won it in two presidential elections. There are two Democratic senators and a governor in Virginia, and that does matter for 2016.

As we learned in 2012, when Virginia's Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell couldn't deliver Virginia to Mitt Romney, having a governor is no guarantee; but having control of top state offices - matter. And Terry McAuliffe is a special case. He's the Clintons' best friend. And Virginia governor's mansion now becomes Hillary Clinton's Southern headquarters, should she decide to run.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

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