In short: an overwhelming victory in a Northern blue state by someone who had literally embraced the president; a defeat in a Southern purple state by a hardcore conservative to an uninspiring Democrat in an off-year election; and a primary victory in a solid-red district by an establishment Republican against an insurgent conservative birther. Seems like the tea party crowd would be chastened, right? Wrong, as you'll see below the fold.
As Chris Cilizza and Aaron Blake noted, Governor Christie won among women voters in his state. Dave Weigel indicates that he also became the first Republican since 1998 to win among Latinos. Now, given the fact that the chief demographic issues that hamper Republican chances at winning elections are glaring weaknesses among women and Latino voters, it might seem that conservatives everywhere, even those who don't like Christie, might bite the bullet and see his electoral and political strategy as a model to use for the future. Instead, however, the conservative base is choosing to engage in its own deluded form of confirmation bias—seeing a narrower-than-expected loss as a genuine win, and modeling an entire political strategy out of it:
“You can win a referendum on Obamacare,” said Baker. “That’s a lesson of this race.”The strong likelihood, of course, is that this narrative simply isn't true. Geoff Garin, who served as pollster for the victorious Terry McAuliffe campaign, said that Cuccinelli's campaign line about being the first attorney general in the nation to sue to stop the Affordable Care Act was actually an electoral loser. Meanwhile, exit polls indicate that only about a quarter of voters in Virginia saw the law as their top issue, and of those, a bare plurality supported Cuccinelli. But none of that will end up mattering: the tea party activists who have decided that opposition to health insurance reform is the hill that they will die on will hang onto anything that could help support what they so desperately want to believe. And in the case of the Virginia race, the radical narrative will be that the party establishment stabbed Cuccinelli in the back by refusing to fund his campaign to adequate levels. As Markos Moulitsas notes, however, the establishment did invest heavily in Cuccinelli through the Republican Governor's Association, but the candidate himself simply couldn't raise the cash:
When conservatives start to plot for 2014, that’s the lesson they’ll internalize. They will not be told, by “the establishment,” that they fought on a losing issue, with a candidate who ran 12 points behind his own 2009 statewide vote, in a party that threw away elections because they didn’t nominate moderates. Not at all. Party Chairman Pat Mullins told revelers that Terry McAuliffe’s 48 percent of the vote gave him “no mandate,” and that the “referendum on Obamacare” should shock the other side.
Ken Cuccinelli, in his last foreseeable speech as a candidate, insisted that this was true. “Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million,” he said, “this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare.”
“Run for Senate!” yelled a voice in the crowd.
Recriminations are flying fast and furious in the right over last night's loss, with conservatives declaring themselves the victims of a brutal abandonment by their establishment. Democrat Barbara Buono can make that argument in New Jersey. Conservatives in Virginia cannot. The RGA spent over $8 million in the race, including $3 million in direct contributions, while the RNC threw in another $3 million. Now Cooch was a shitty fundraiser—raising just $12 million to McAuliffe's $28 million. So yes, Cuccinelli was outspent, but not because the establishment abandoned him, but because he couldn't do something Republicans never have a problem doing: raising money in a state with no contribution limits.But as Frum says, that counterargument is not conclusive, and there is a pre-existing narrative in the minds of tea party activists that the party establishment is weak-kneed and does not want to support true conservatives; the stories about Cuccinelli being underfunded will only feed that narrative even further, and the fact that the Republican Party has lost five Senate races that they likely would have won with less extreme candidates does not provide any counterweight. Perhaps a blowout loss by Cuccinelli would have changed this narrative to some degree and reduced the ideological fervor behind the rehabilitation of his electoral strategy; but even then, the Dolchstoßlegende narrative regarding establishment support could have continued on unabated.
In short, the tea party faction will come away from the 2013 elections seeing no reason to not continue its challenge and nominate a "true conservative" in 2014 and 2016. Despite what these election results might have indicated to normal people, the civil war in the Republican Party will continue on unchanged.