What Do Tuesday's Election Results Really Mean?

Elections this week provided mixed messages to the Republican Party about its political strategy moving into the 2014 midterms and beyond. Guest host Don Gonyea talks with NPR politics editor Charlie Mahtesian about the lessons for the GOP.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

Election results this week painted a mixed picture for the GOP as the party wrestles with its political strategy for the 2014 midterms and beyond. A more moderate Republican, Chris Christie, won his re-election in the very blue state of New Jersey with a landslide victory. Yet conservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the Virginia governor's race to his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe.

And those races overshadowed a very interesting congressional primary in Alabama that further complicated the party's outlook. Here to talk about all of this is NPR politics editor, Charlie Mahtesian. Welcome, Charlie.

CHARLIE MAHTESIAN, BYLINE: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: So let's start with Governor Christie. No surprise in his very lopsided victory, but what lessons can the GOP take from his win?

MAHTESIAN: Well, I think the most important lesson is that he is a strong compelling contender for the 2016 Republican nomination, and that's just undeniable when you look at the way he won his race over Barbara Buono on Tuesday night. He won with all kinds of constituencies that Republicans have really struggled with in recent years. And he actually even won Hispanics, won a fifth of the black vote and won the female vote.

So, I mean, those were all pretty substantive accomplishments for a Republican candidate these days.

GONYEA: OK. Virginian. Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost by just a narrow margin. His supporters are blaming the Republican establishment for not fully backing a candidate that they think could have won with more support. Fair point, just spin?

MAHTESIAN: Well, it's a little of both because losing candidates often say that, oh well, I was thrown under the bus by the national party and there's always a little bit of truth to it, but in this case Cuccinelli did get a significant amount of money from the national party. The Republican Governor's Association poured in about $8 million to the campaign, the RNC poured in at least $3 million.

I think the wanted more, the campaign expected more, but what the national groups expected in return from Cuccinelli was better poll numbers in October, a better fundraising organization and when they didn't see that late in the campaign, they decided to hold back a little bit.

GONYEA: Let's turn to that Republican primary in Alabama. It was a race for the state's First Congressional District seat, special election and open seat. Who were the players, why is it interesting?

MAHTESIAN: Well, typically a runoff like this one flies under the radar because it's a heavily Republican seat that is going to replace its republican congressman with a new Republican congressman. So the outcome won't change the balance of power in Congress but what will change Congress in important ways is the kind of Republican who gets elected from a district like this.

So what you saw was on one side Bradley Byrne, who was tagged as the establishment candidate. He was supported by the United States Chamber of Commerce. He was lined up against a Tea Party-oriented candidate named Dean Young. There was a pretty distinct difference between the two candidates.

GONYEA: This is a conservative part of a conservative state, a place where you might expect a Tea Party candidate to do very well. He lost. What's that tell us?

MAHTESIAN: That's a really important part of this story, that this was a very conservative district, so I think for lots of folks that are affiliated with the more moderate or even establishment wing of the Republican Party, they saw this race and were pretty excited about the outcome, thinking that maybe the party was moving in a different kind of direction.

GONYEA: So let's look at all of these races and look ahead to 2014, the midterms. Are we seeing a strategy for the party emerge? Does Alabama tell us anything about what 2014 might look like?

MAHTESIAN: Tuesday's elections didn't settle anything. If anything, it deepened the rift in the Republican Party. But what I do think we learned from the Alabama race in particular is that the strategy going forward for the Republican establishment at least is to confront the Tea Party head on, and that means shutting off the fundraising spigot, it means going after Tea Party candidates head on. You already see an advocacy group forming among moderates to fight back. So you see the establishment fighting back and fighting back pretty hard for the first time.

GONYEA: That's NPR political editor, Charlie Mahtesian. Thanks, Charlie.

MAHTESIAN: Thanks, Don.

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