On one side of the (admittedly wide) Hudson River, a Democrat running to lead a city of 8.3 million people leads by 44 points before polls open on Tuesday. On the other, a Republican running to lead a state of 8.8 million leads by 28 points. In part, it's due to the two men running. But it also shows a Republican Party in which dogmatic conservatism has become a liability anywhere except the most uniformly Republican areas.
In New York City, the mayor's race is all but over. Republican Joe Lhota, left to criticize his opponent's sleeping habits, will lose by a wide margin in Tuesday's vote according to a new poll from Quinnipiac University. The main factor in that margin may be how compelled Democrats feel to bother coming out to vote for Bill de Blasio, the avowedly progressive victor in the city's weird primary. (The suddenly-cold weather may be more helpful to Lhota's attempts to save face than anything else.)
But across the way, in New Jersey, brash, aggressive Gov. Chris Christie will win with just as much certainty (again, according to Quinnipiac). Over the weekend, Christie — who made his name fighting the state's teachers' unions — got in a hearted argument with a teacher, the sort of thing that would spell doom for other candidates. (A standard rule of thumb in local politics: Keep the cops, firefighters, and teachers happy — and ask them to pose for your campaign material.) But for Christie? Just Chris being Chris.
This is part of why he's winning. Josh Barro at Business Insider offers a more nuanced assessment of Christie's big lead. It's not about Jersey loving a tough guy. It's about Christie being (as we put it last month) one of the few remaining independent Republicans on the national stage. Barro writes:
Christie has been making that case explicitly, telling voters they need to stop expecting so much purity and look for politicians who will make compromises to move the country forward. … [Christie said:] "Let me tell you, if you're looking for the candidate that you agree with 100% of the time, then I want you to do something for me tonight: Go home and look in the mirror, because that's the only person you agree with 100% of the time. But sometimes we make political candidates feel like that's what you want."
Christie is picking up support from 30 percent of the state's Democrats (in contrast, de Blasio gets only 20 percent of Republicans). That's in large part because Christie is seen as pragmatic, working with Barack Obama in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, for example, in an effort to get resources for New Jersey. (New York City, it's worth noting, grew tired of its acquiescent Republican leader. De Blasio's lead is largely seen as Mayor Michael Bloomberg having overstayed his welcome.)
Barro points out, as have others, the contrast between New Jersey and the governor's race in Virginia. There, in a much less Democratic state than New Jersey (in 2012, Obama won Virginia by three points; Jersey by 18), the Republican candidate is trailing significantly; per Quinnipiac, Democrat Terry McAuliffe is up 6 points on Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli was selected as the party's gubernatorial candidate in a convention sanctioned by the state party instead of a more typical primary process. In doing so, the party all-but-assured that its candidate would adhere to now-doctrinaire conservative positions, as Cuccinelli has. (One key effort in Cuccinelli's campaign has been explicitly anti-gay legislation.)
That might have worked decently in 2010. In 2013 — particularly in the wake of the failed anti-Obamacare shutdown, it's proven a disaster for Cuccinelli. McAuliffe's net approval rating is -3. Cuccinelli's is -14. Thirty-two percent of Virginians are voting for McAuliffe because they don't like the other candidates, including a libertarian, who's polling at 8 percent. (Without the libertarian in the race, McAuliffe's lead is even bigger.)
As NBC News reports, the likely Cuccinelli loss will force the state's Republicans to address the process by which he became their candidate.
"I think the Republican Party erupts into a civil war 30 minutes after the polls close," [pollster Quentin] Kidd predicts. "I think the [more centrist] wing of the party would feel emboldened enough to say 'We told you so, you idiots. Why do you keep nominating these extremists who are out of step with Virginia?'"
The "out of step with Virginia" comment reflects a key factor: Republican extremism doesn't work in states that aren't extremely Republican. In Alabama, where there's a primary for an open House seat, it does. The battle there is between a staunch Republican and an adamant Tea Party supporter, forcing the Republican establishment to take sides. In the wake of the Tea Party-backed shutdown, the national Chamber of Commerce became desperate to resolve the debate before the country defaulted on its debt, urging lawmakers to rein in the far-right insurgency. In Alabama, the Chamber is backing that staunch Republican, hoping to prevent the House from moving even further to the right. A poll out last week showed Dean Young — the Tea Party candidate who told The Guardian that President Obama was probably born in Kenya and "homosexuality is wrong, and that is just the way it is" — with a slight lead.
Tuesday's elections may not reflect much more than the politics of the moment. For Chris Christie, who will almost certainly run for president in 2016, it's a chance to show that he has a mandate from a Democratic state to continue his type of leadership — the sort of thing that could play well three years from now. But, again, the biggest problem Christie faces probably isn't Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. It's those deeply Republican states that still want and expect dogma. That, Christie struggles with.
Photo: Cuccinelli and Christie. (AP)