Three US State elections from a British political perspective

Chris Christie, Bill de Blasio and Terry McAuliffe

By Maxwell Woodger

Foreign Affairs ILast Tuesday, Americans went to the polls in three states, which are key to US presidential elections: New York, New Jersey and Virginia. For a UK comparison, this would be equivalent to a major regional election such as the 2012 London Mayor election, or a significant number of Council elections in swing constituencies that make the difference in UK General Elections.

These State elections were significant, not only because they saw a change in three high profile political leaders, but also they may determine the sort of candidates and messages Democrats and Republicans will use, come 2016.

Even to those new to US Politics, the name Michael Bloomberg should be instantly recognisable. Bloomberg was unable to stand for re-election after his third term as New York City Mayor due to term limits (extended from 2 during his tenure). His 3 successive election victories (twice as a Republican and lastly as an Independent) followed 2 from Republican Rudy Giuliani meaning Democrats have been shut out of what should be a stronghold for over 20 years.

This will soon change. On January 1st, 2014 Bloomberg will be replaced by Bill de Blasio, an unapologetic left-wing Democrat who shares a similar ideology to Labour’s Ed Miliband. The passionate De Blasio advocates more heavy-handed central control to solve NYC’s problems, compared to the sober data-driven Bloomberg (favourite quote: “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data”). NYC was run for 50 years by Democrats until the early 1990s when the electorate finally gave Republicans a go for the last 20 years – until now. They will get a new, more charismatic, Mayor, but it will be hard to beat Bloomberg’s efficiency. Mr Miliband may be smiling now to see a fellow social democrat controlling our sister city across the pond, but might want to keep track of De Blasio’s progress, especially if impassioned speeches fail to translate into effective city leadership.

The New Jersey gubernatorial election saw a moderate Republican re-elected in a traditionally Democratic leaning state. I personally campaigned for Chris Christie on his first run in 2009 when I was studying abroad in Washington DC. I remember taking a campaign bus to NJ with a group of college Republicans, walking up and down the coastal towns knocking on doors getting the vote out. Back in 2009 Christie was a lesser known U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, but this served as a natural stepping stone to the governor’s mansion. He beat the unpopular Jon Corzine by only 3.6%, but what was more impressive was his wide margin of victory last week when he crushed the Democrat’s Barbara Buono by 20.3%. Christie’s brand of moderate Republicanism mixes fiscal responsibility (in making some much needed state spending cuts to balance the books) but also being able to reach across the aisle and work with whatever organisation is having difficulty. Christie’s ability to reach voters that his party leadership in Congress cannot is marking him out as a possible Republican presidential candidate for 2016.

There is a strong comparison with London’s Boris Johnson who was re-elected last year in a naturally Labour-leaning city and now with such popular appeal is being seen as a possible future national leader. The common denominator is that the sheer force of their respective personalities is able to break through tribalism and disillusionment in politics.

The result of Virginia’s Governor Race was the most surprising of the three state elections. While polls had indicated Democrats would take back New York City and Republicans would hold on to New Jersey, Virginia’s result was too close to call for most commentators. The 1 term limit for Virginia Governors ensures new faces run every election. Historically Virginia has been Republican-leaning but the state does occasionally switch party control, particularly in recent years. The story of the past few cycles has been a loss for whichever party won the previous years presidential election. I got to meet the last Democratic Virginia Governor, Tim Kaine, when he was also serving as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 2010. I remember seeing his successor and now incumbent Republican Governor Bob McDonnell speak at the start of a NASCAR race in Richmond, Virginia.

On the 14th of January 2014 the Democrat’s Terry McAuliffe will take residency in the Governor’s mansion. McAuliffe was not particularly charismatic but he had a large fund-raising advantage over his Republican opponent – outspending him by $15million.  McAuliffe also had key support from the Clinton family, largely due to his former roles fundraising for both Bill and Hillary Clinton presidential runs in the past. The demographic changes in Virginia of an increasing younger Hispanic population who see McAuliffe’s connection with the Clinton’s as a positive (forgetting all the scandals) made a key difference. The fact that many Virginian’s commute into Washington DC and found their places of work shut down by Congress may have also played a role.

The Republican Party, in my view, lost Virginia by picking a particularly polarising candidate and running a poorly funded campaign. Back in 2009 McDonnell used the $9 million in funds from the Republican National Committee to propel him into office. This year the RNC only spent around $3 million on the Virginia campaign, a sign of things going wrong (although you cannot always buy elections as shown by Meg Whitman’s ill-fated $178.5 million California governor campaign).

I believe a moderate Republican would have won in Virginia in 2013, but instead, ‘Tea Party’ activists took control of the primary and selected Ken Cuccinelli, the uninspiring current attorney general for the state. He lost by 2.5% although it should be noted that the libertarian party candidate Robert Sarvis, picked up 6.5% of the vote – a reminder of the effect that third/smaller party candidates can have in denying office to large parties. Britain’s main 3 parties, particularly my own Conservatives, should take note. While UKIP are unlikely to win any seats in Parliament they may deny us seats in marginally held constituencies, letting Labour in.

Follow the example set by the Christies and the Bloombergs. Win from the centre, reaching out to all sets of potential voters, instead of bunkering down and focusing exclusively on the right.

The 2014 Congressional Elections will be a fight for both parties to keep what they have already secured – I predict the Republican party to hold the House (perhaps losing a few seats but ensuring victory partly though redistricting following 2010 boundary changes) and the Senate to remain Democrat (mainly due to Republican’s inability to select moderate candidates in swing states they need to win off Democrats). Republicans will need to make a choice in 2016 and pick someone independents can vote for but who may seem ‘unpure’ to their base (like Chris Christie). If not they will face yet another presidential defeat, perhaps from Hillary Clinton. The Conservative Party had to suffer two large defeats in 2001 & 2005 with leaders that pleased the party base but attracted few independents, before retuning to the centre ground of British politics with the electable David Cameron (of whom I am a self-confessed supporter). 2015 will be close, but it can still be won. Miliband’s drift to the left presents Cameron with an opportunity to dominate the centre while doing enough to keep his right base happy.

Given the fascination American politics holds for many of us in the UK I will not be the only one seeking to draw lessons from last weeks’ results. I only hope the correct ones are learnt and in a way that leads the Conservatives to a majority in 2015.

Maxwell Woodger is Deputy Chairman Political of London Conservative Future


One Comment

  1. interesting piece. One thing i’d emphasis is how conservative Christie is compared to any successful New Jersey Republican of the last 40 years-very impressive.