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Robert Bennett: Both parties claim victories in changing landscapes

Published: Monday, Nov. 11 2013 10:43 a.m. MST

Both parties are claiming good omens from last week's elections.

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Both parties are claiming good omens from last week's elections. As we sift through them, we should remember that no election turns on a single factor. There are many intersecting currents at play — the economy, the mood of the electorate, the skills of the candidate, the pressing issues, whatever. Every analysis, including this one, is open to challenge. That said, a few thoughts.

New York City mayor: Democratic victory.

What is significant about William de Basio's big win in New York is that it represents a sharp turn to the left for a city that has been dramatically changed by 20 years of Republican/independent rule. Before then, New York was considered crime-ridden, dirty and ungovernable. Rudy Giuliani and then Mike Bloomberg not only governed it but cleaned up its streets and made it one of the safest cities in the nation. De Basio objects strongly to the way they did it and promises to handle the job in a very different way. It will be very interesting to watch.

Virginia governor: Democratic victory.

Three weeks ago, in the aftermath of the government shutdown, Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, was down by double digits and written off as beyond saving, another casualty of right-wing extremism. His actual showing was very respectable, losing by only 2.5 points. What happened?

Most observers answer with one word — Obamacare. Once Cuccinelli shifted all of his emphasis to attacking Obamacare, the polls tracked his closing of the gap in response to that strategy. It is entirely possible that if there had been no government shutdown, damaging the Republican brand and putting him in a hole that proved to be too deep to climb out of, he would have won.

Maybe. Let's consider the fates of the two statewide candidates running with Cuccinelli. The lieutenant governor candidate went strongly to Cuccinelli's right, ran as a truly pure tea partier, and lost by 10 points. The attorney general candidate went the other way, positioned himself as more moderate, and won by 479 votes. (He's now awaiting a recount). Fighting Obamacare proved to be powerful political medicine for Republicans in Virginia but down-ballot analysis suggests that a certain amount of tea party drag was still there.

New Jersey: Republican victory.

Chris Christie, R-N.J., did better than expected in every demographic category and ended up with 61 percent of the vote in one of the most Democratic states in the union. Some are spinning this as a win for a moderate Republican, but Christie is the most conservative governor elected in New Jersey in the last 50 years, maybe forever. When he took office, he was hailed as a tea party hero because his views are very close to those held by Cuccinelli.

How was he able to win big in a deep blue state when Cuccinelli could not do so in a slightly pink one? I suggest that the answer is leadership style. Unlike Cuccinelli or Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Christie "plays well with others." He doesn't go out of his way to offend, giving fiery speeches denouncing everyone who disagrees with him. Instead he seeks them out for discussions and tries to make them his friends. He is more concerned with results than rhetoric, with making a deal than making a point.

To some, that makes him a RINO: Republican In Name Only. To me, that makes him a student of the leadership style of Ronald Reagan, a conservative who stuck to his principles but still made deals and, like Christie, won big when he ran for re-election. With a political exemplar like that, Christie emerges from the 2013 elections as the Republican to watch.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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