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November 6, 2013

Virginia, Alabama races show tea party limits

In the closing days of his losing campaign for Virginia's governorship, Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli called the contest a referendum on Affordable Health Care. Virginia voter Lee Killen saw it instead as a referendum on the tea party — and he voted no.

Killen, a Republican-turned-independent from Fairfax, cast his ballot for Terry McAuliffe less to endorse the Democrat than to lodge a protest against the small-government movement he said has hijacked his former party.

"I don't particularly like McAuliffe, but I went with him basically because I disagree with the tea party approach to life — no compromise, no middle ground," Killen, 70, a retired software engineer, said in an interview just after casting his vote Tuesday. "Cuccinelli has been a tea party leader from the very beginning, and those values are not my values."

It's that dynamic as much as any other that tipped the balance in Virginia against Republicans, carrying McAuliffe, 56, the former national party chairman and fundraiser, to victory. He had 48 percent of the vote to Cuccinelli's 46 percent, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting in the Associated Press tally.

The same forces were at play in Alabama, where business- backed Bradley Byrne defeated tea party-aligned rival Dean Young in the Republican primary for a special House election next month to fill an open seat. Byrne drew 52 percent of the vote to Young's 48 percent, with all precincts reporting in the AP tally.

The victory margin for McAuliffe in the Virginia race was narrower than public polls had projected as Robert Sarvis, a third-party libertarian candidate who pre-election surveys showed drawing support ranging from 8 to 12 percentage points, received 6.6 percent of the vote.

McAuliffe's win makes him the first candidate of a sitting president's party in 40 years to win Virginia's governorship, handing Democrats control of a politically competitive state whose demographics reflect an increasingly diverse U.S. electorate.

Cuccinelli, 45, was defiant in defeat, saying his loss wasn't an indicator of a lack of support for his principles.

"Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," he said in a concession speech in Richmond. "Constitutional conservatism and free-market ideas are alive in Virginia."

McAuliffe framed his win as an endorsement of bipartisanship.

"This election was never a choice between Democrats and Republicans, it was a choice about whether Virginia would continue the mainstream, bipartisan tradition that has served us so well," he told supporters at a victory party in suburban Washington.

The race, which hit high gear amid last month's 16-day partial federal government shutdown driven by tea party activists in Congress and the botched rollout of the 2010 health-care law, became a test case for the two parties' reputations, policy arguments and weaknesses one year out from midterm congressional elections. It also served as a cautionary tale for Republicans about the limits of the tea party's appeal.

"I used to be a Republican, but since the tea party has come into the Republican Party, I just can't — they're too extreme," said Steven Feusier, 62, another Fairfax resident who voted for McAuliffe. He said he backed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012 and outgoing Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009 yet couldn't bring himself to support Cuccinelli.

Feusier isn't thrilled with the health-care measure — in the days before he cast his vote, he tried several times without success to log onto the website to enroll in the newly created insurance exchange. Yet an automated call from Cuccinelli's campaign citing the law's flaws wasn't enough to persuade him that the Republican was worth supporting.

"That's really the overriding thing: He's too extreme, he's not willing to compromise, and all that other stuff just isn't convincing in light of that," Feusier said.

In the Alabama Republican primary, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce decided to weigh in after Young spotlighted his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage and said there was no need to raise the government's debt ceiling, which would have risked a U.S. default.

The chamber spent more than $200,000 to support Byrne, as Rob Engstrom, the chamber's national political director, called the contest a way to send a message that it will seek to defeat Republicans who don't share its economic interests.

Young was endorsed by a Mobile, Ala.-based tea party group, Common Sense Campaign, and Reno-based Our Voice Pac, a super political action committee founded by former Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle that spent $65,000 on ads promoting his candidacy. Angle lost her 2010 race to Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader.

Byrne will face Democrat Burton LeFlore, a 47-year-old Mobile real estate agent, in a Dec. 17 special election in a district that backed Romney over President Obama in 2012.

The Virginia contest was driven by more than strongly held opinions about the tea party.

It was a race featuring two unpopular candidates, each roiled by ethics allegations, and dominated by attack television advertising. Cuccinelli bore the brunt of the negative media as McAuliffe raised more money than him — $34 million compared with $19 million — and outside Democratic groups piled on with more ads while divided Republicans held back.

Preliminary exit polls showed Cuccinelli underperforming McDonnell's 2011 showing among Republicans and independents. He lost self-described moderates to McAuliffe by 21 percent, drawing support from about one-third of them, 13 percentage points less than McDonnell.

He lost women to McAuliffe by 8 percentage points, receiving support from 42 percent to the Democrat's 50 percent. One fifth of the voters named abortion as their top issue, and McAuliffe won them by a two-to-one margin.

The outcomes in Virginia and Alabama — along with Republican Gov. Chris Christie's re-election romp in heavily Democratic New Jersey after a campaign in which he touted his bipartisan appeal — mirror what recent national polls show is a broader repudiation of the tea party and its unbending approach.

"The tea party has lost a lot of support over time, and now in our polling, we have found the most negative views for the tea party that we've found since we started measuring" three years ago, said Carroll Doherty, an associate director at Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.

In the center's poll conducted Oct. 9-13, 49 percent had an unfavorable view of the tea party compared with 30 percent who had a positive impression. That was a marked decline in popularity driven mostly by moderate and liberal Republicans, only 27 percent of whom had a favorable view of the movement, compared to 46 percent six months ago. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

"A lot of this backlash among moderate Republicans has to do with tactics, specifically related to the government shutdown and trying to tie health care to it," Doherty said. The shift raises this question, he said: "Can the tea party actually recover that ground among people who really moved in a negative direction?"

A George Washington University Battleground Poll conducted Oct. 27-31 also found the tea party faring poorly across all groups, with 42 percent having a "strongly unfavorable" view. Fifty-four percent of respondents had a negative impression, including 30 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of independents.

Among self-described moderates, the tea party brand was particularly weak, with 56 percent viewing them negatively. The survey's margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

"Being called a tea-party Republican is no longer a compliment in the public's mind," Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said in discussing the battleground survey. "There's really intense negative toward the tea party, and even Republicans blame the tea party."

The dilemma for Republicans is that the movement, which mobilized in 2009 to protest the health-care law and the stimulus-driven economic recovery pushed by Obama, comprises a vital portion of its core support network.

"The Republican Party cannot exist without the tea party. It's the base of the party. They're the people who are going to go out and work," said Republican strategist Greg Mueller. "If Republicans want to have a chance of winning back the Senate in 2014, they're going to have to smoke the peace pipe with the tea party and conservatives — to stop ostracizing them and find a way to start energizing them."

In a sign that the intraparty fight isn't over, some activists argued that Cuccinelli's loss stemmed from his unwillingness to embrace and vigorously defend his conservative record on social issues.

"Cuccinelli ran totally ineffectual, soft-focus positive ads, that left the charge of abortion extremism unrebutted, and failed to make McAuliffe pay a price for his pro-abortion extremism," said Frank Cannon, president of American Principles in Action.

Some tea party leaders were energized by Cuccinelli's narrower-than-forecast loss, perhaps foretelling an even fiercer civil war among Republicans in the coming year. Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer, who is based in Georgia, said Cuccinelli's defeat showed the enduring strength of the movement she helped found and the political potency of opposition to the health care law.

The Virginia outcome, she said, "should be a warning shot not only for the Democrats in 2014, but for the Republican Party and the establishment, because we are stronger than ever and we are going to be very active" in next year's congressional elections.

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