Now That Election 2013 Is Over, What Does It All Mean?

Elections across the country installed a Democratic governor in increasingly purple Virginia and gave a Republic governor more than 50 percent of the vote in deep blue New Jersey. Those were just two races that were closely watched around the nation Tuesday night. With the election over, it's time to read the tea leaves to see what the outcomes of various races could mean for politics and policy in the coming year.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish at NPR West in California.

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And I'm Melissa Block in Washington, D.C.

Both parties pulled off big wins in yesterday's elections. In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie cruised to reelection, the first Republican to win more than 50 percent of the vote there in 30 years. In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Tea Party-backed Republican Ken Cuccinelli.

It's the first time in nearly 40 years that Republicans have lost the Virginia governor's race with a Democrat in the White House. As NPR's Mara Liasson reports, both results give the GOP plenty to think about.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It was a tale of two elections for Republicans. A moderate wins big in a blue state and a Tea Party-backed candidate loses narrowly in a purple state. Does that mean conservatives can't win outside the Deep South? No, says national Tea Party leader Jenny Beth Martin. Terry McAuliffe outspent Ken Cuccinelli by two to one but only won Virginia by two and a half points. Martin says that's too close to be a referendum on anything.

JENNY BETH MARTIN: The important thing to look at is what was it that pushed the raced to be so close. And it's in the last week and a half, as Cuccinelli really was talking about the issues with Obamacare, that's when the race tightened up.

LIASSON: But Virginia was once Cuccinelli's race to lose. Terry McAuliffe was considered a very weak candidate. Former Republican Party chair Ed Gillespie, who was raised in New Jersey but spent the last 20 years in Virginia, says the state is changing and Republicans need to adjust.

ED GILLESPIE: It is much more purple with a greater tinge of blue than it has been. It's no surprise that the president carried Virginia in his first election and in his reelection. There's two Democratic senators in the United States Senate today from Virginia. For Republicans to be competitive, we have got to not only turn out our own core voters but persuade those many independents in Virginia why our policies are best.

LIASSON: In New Jersey, Chris Christie broadened the Republican coalition. He even won Hispanics. In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe made the race a referendum on Ken Cuccinelli's conservative views on social issues like abortion and divorce.

TOM DAVIS: If the Republicans can't learn from looking at New Jersey and Virginia, then I don't think there's any helping them.

LIASSON: That's former Virginia Congressman Tom Davis with a blunt message for his own party.

DAVIS: They're going to have to come to peace with themselves and recognize they're a coalition and they're not a private club. What do I mean? I mean, a private club has a litmus test for entry, and this was the case in Virginia. If you supported background checks, you didn't belong in the party. On abortion, if you weren't a hundred percent pro-life, you didn't belong in the party. If you didn't sign the tax pledge, you didn't belong in the party. And the result certainly didn't appeal to the wider electorate once you got outside that Republican convention crowd.

LIASSON: The party establishment embraces this lesson but, says Davis, the rank and file isn't buying it yet.

DAVIS: And that will be the test moving into the midterms, where you're going to have some contentious Senate nomination fights and, more importantly, moving into the next presidential election, where the fight for the soul of the Republican Party will be born out.

LIASSON: Then you'll have the Ted Cruz-Ken Cuccinelli wing of the party battling it out against what, as of today, you'd have to call the Chris Christie wing of the party. Christie sees his big victory in blue New Jersey as an argument for why he's the most electable Republican in 2016. But last night's historic win for Democrats in Virginia could complicate any Republican's plans. Although governors can't guarantee victory for their party's presidential nominee, they can help a lot. And as political analyst Larry Sabato points out, Terry McAuliffe is a special case.

LARRY SABATO: You have somebody being elected governor of Virginia who is virtually a shadow of one of - the likely Democratic nominee. Terry McAuliffe is one of the Clintons' best friends. He vacations with them. The governor's mansion in Virginia now becomes the Southern headquarters for Hillary Clinton. And Virginia is one of the key swing states.

LIASSON: That's because Virginia is now the true bellwether state in presidential elections. In 2012, its vote more closely mirrored the national results than any other state. Chris Christie might or might not be able to put New Jersey in play, but if Republicans can't carry Virginia, they probably can't win the country. And that's something else the GOP has to think about over the next three years.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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