A little more than a month after Republicans set off a disastrous confrontation that shut down the U.S. government, voters are getting their first chance to respond.
On Tuesday, Virginia and New Jersey will elect governors in races that are bellwethers for the national mood heading into next year's mid-term elections.
For Republicans – currently locked in an internal war between moderate pragmatists and Tea Party firebrands – there is cause for both hope and fear. In Virginia, the party's right-wing candidate appears set to fall victim to a wave of disgust at the shutdown and his unwillingness to soften his opposition to abortion, gay marriage and gun control. But in New Jersey, the party's centrist incumbent is on the brink of a massive victory.
Tea Party in trouble
Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican option in Virginia's gubernatorial election, is spending little time in the campaign's final days talking about what he would do as governor.
To be sure, if Virginians want lower taxes, Mr. Cuccinelli, currently the state's attorney-general, says he's their man. He wins applause when he describes his personal commitment to liberating the wrongly convicted and to better caring for the mentally disturbed.
But all of that is just the oratorical path to get where Mr. Cuccinelli really wants to go. He no longer is running a campaign for governor; rather, he's spearheading a referendum on President Barack Obama's intensely controversial overhaul of the national health-care system.
"If we win this race against Obamacare, with them outspending us the way they have, it will send a big message across the Potomac," Mr. Cuccinelli bellowed at one campaign stop on the weekend, referring to the river that separates Virginia from the District of Columbia.
It's a rich vein to mine for votes. The Affordable Care Act never was popular with Republicans, who feel the law was foisted on them by the Democratic majority in 2010. The widely reported troubles with the website where the uninsured must go to sign up for health plans and a steady flow of anecdotes about rising premiums only has made them angrier.
Mere mention of Obamacare elicited boos and hisses from the 100-or-so supporters who gathered to hear Mr. Cuccinelli in a carefully groomed pocket of this sprawling suburban municipality about 90 minutes south of Washington. On an overpass near the exit to town, someone had strung a banner asking drivers on the I-95 to honk if they wanted to "impeach" Obamacare. An American flag fluttered next to the banner, only it was hanging upside down.
Unfortunately for Mr. Cuccinelli, voters are angry about more than just Obamacare. The election to run the 12th-most populous state also has become a referendum on Republicans, especially the hard-line Tea Party faction with which Mr. Cuccinelli is aligned. Heading into the final weekend, polls suggest the Republican is trailing.
"It's the first referendum on the Tea Party and it comes at a very bad time for the Tea Party," said Frank Shafroth, director of the Center for State and Local Government Leadership at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Mr. Cuccinelli's Democratic opponent, Terry MacAuliffe, a millionaire businessman and investor known more for his prowess as a political fundraiser, isn't spending a lot of time talking about his vision for Virginia.
Mr. MacAuliffe's campaign in recent weeks has deployed a barrage of negative ads about Mr. Cuccinelli's opposition to abortion, an effective wedge issue aimed at Virginia's growing population of younger, urban women who helped Mr. Obama win the state in 2008 and again in 2012.
The Democratic campaign also is exploiting Mr. Cuccinelli's doubts about the validity of climate change and his opposition to even modest forms of gun control. And then there is the federal government shutdown last month that was unpopular across the country, and especially so in Virginia, home to hundreds of thousands of public servants and soldiers.
Mr. Cuccinelli said he disapproved of House Republicans' futile attempt to dismantle Obamacare by refusing to extend the government's spending authority. That hasn't stopped Mr. McAuliffe from encouraging Virginians to take their frustrations out on Mr. Cuccinelli by voting against the "Tea Party ticket" on Tuesday.
Mr. McAuliffe has raised some $35-million (U.S.) to Mr. Cuccinelli's $18-million. Much of the money for both candidates has come from out-of-state sources intent on turning the race into a proxy battle ahead of next year's midterm elections.
Mr. McAuliffe has been helped on the campaign trail by former president Bill Clinton and Mr. Obama, who spoke at a rally of about 1,600 people Sunday. Mr. Cuccinelli with a string of Republican politicians popular with the Tea Party, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
"The out-of-state money could care less about either of the two individuals," said Prof. Shafroth. "Both sides want a referendum on President Obama and what has been going on in Washington."
Bridging the partisan divide
Viru Patel had never voted for a Republican in his life until Chris Christie came along.
The 53-year old former traffic engineer lives in Woodbridge Township, N.J., and describes himself as a "very, very staunch Democrat." But he's enthusiastic about Mr. Christie, the state's rotund and pugnacious governor, who is running for re-election on Tuesday.
"He speaks out of his heart and he does what he says," said Mr. Patel. "He can work with the other side and bring good results."
It's the kind of admiring comment that explains why Mr. Christie is cruising toward a landslide victory in Tuesday's election. But for Mr. Christie, the goal is far larger: to use his win in New Jersey as a blueprint for national success.
The Republican Party is struggling to recover from record-low approval ratings in the wake of the government shutdown, hobbled by the perception that it is under the sway of an uncompromising band of far-right legislators.
In New Jersey, by contrast, Mr. Christie has built a super-coalition of supporters that includes a majority of the state's women and independent voters, plus nearly a third of black voters and Democratic voters. In polls, Mr. Christie leads his opponent, Democratic State Senator Barbara Buono, by 30 percentage points.
Mr. Christie "will certainly use his victory as justification for why he should be the Republican nominee" for president, said Ben Dworkin, who directs the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.
The Governor is "like the Beatles when they first came to America," added Mr. Dworkin. "He doesn't look or sound like anybody else out there."
His rhetoric also bears little resemblance to the kind recently favoured by many Republicans in Washington. "As long as you stick to your principles, compromise is not a dirty word," he says in one television ad. His campaign flaunts his bipartisan chops: to get anything done, he has worked with the Democrats who control both houses of the state legislature. (His television ads all close with the same slogan: "Chris Christie. The Governor." The word Republican is conspicuously absent.)
A key moment for Mr. Christie came a little over a year ago, when Hurricane Sandy devastated a swath of New Jersey's coastline. Mr. Christie toured the affected areas with U.S. President Barack Obama and praised Mr. Obama for his help with the disaster just days before the 2012 presidential election.
Some Republicans are still angry with Mr. Christie for his rhetorical embrace of Mr. Obama, but it was smart politics: Federal aid would be critical in rebuilding battered parts of the state and the President was highly popular in New Jersey. Mr. Christie's approval rating soared to 74 per cent in the wake of the storm, according to Quinnipiac University (it has since eased to 65 per cent).
Mr. Christie is plenty conservative: He opposes same-sex marriage and has clashed with unions representing teachers and public-sector employees. But he has little patience for the tests of ideological purity demanded by the Tea Party faction of his party, which views Mr. Christie – a Northeastern Republican who appeals to Democrats – with suspicion.
A big win on Tuesday, however, would bolster Mr. Christie's case that his approach can deliver national results. At a closed-door session of party leaders in August, Mr. Christie made his argument in typically blunt style.
"We are not a debating society," he said, according to Time magazine. "We are a political operation that needs to win. … Because if we don't win, we don't govern. And if we don't govern, all we do is shout into the wind."