A RINO won New Jersey; a dinosaur lost Virginia

What do Tuesday’s resounding re-election of Republican Chris Christie as governor of Democrat-friendly New Jersey and the excruciating defeat of tea party stalwart and gubernatorial wannabe Ken Cuccinelli in once reliably Republican Virginia say about Republican chances of retaking the White House in 2016?

Christie won by 22 points after bad-mouthing the federal government shutdown, which these days makes him a moderate. Now some pundits are wondering out loud whether Christie is the 2016 front-runner.

In losing to oily Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli drove another nail in the tea party coffin.

I wouldn’t declare Christie the GOP front-runner. As Ethics and Public Policy Center senior fellow Henry Olsen opined, Christie has a unique outsize appeal that works in New Jersey but will not necessarily “translate to the national stage.”

But sometimes the conventional wisdom is right. Here are the lessons I take away from the voters’ verdicts:

— The tea party strategy of bucking the party establishment is a loser.

Cuccinelli supporters are venting against the GOP establishment for not giving more money to their man when polls showed that McAuliffe’s lead was dwindling because of the glitch-rich Obamacare rollout. “Knowing that Christie was going to win that race without their help, why would they not help Cuccinelli more?” Tea Party Express head Amy Kremer complained to The Washington Times.

She has a point, but she ignores the laws of cause and effect. In maneuvering the nomination process from a primary election to a convention, the Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in a biting “none-of-the-above” endorsement, Cuccinelli engaged in an “expression of raw power (that) would have delighted sachems of Tammany Hall. Virginia does not welcome an in-your-face governor.”

Tea partyers boast that the GOP cannot win without them. But guess what. They cannot win without the establishment, either.

— Successful candidates appeal to those outside their base.

During his acceptance speech, Christie boasted that he won because he campaigned outside the GOP base. He talked about the need to listen to voters — a novel concept.

In his concession speech, Cuccinelli talked to dead people. “We fought for the principles that were first articulated for the whole world by Virginians,” Cuccinelli told his supporters. He mentioned George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

“We’re New Jersey,” Christie said. “We fight,” but for what’s important.

Cuccinelli? He told his supporters, “We home-school.”

— There is a right way and a wrong way to oppose abortion rights.

“To talk to all America, you have to start with the proposition that we are happy that women have a different role in life” and control over their bodies, Olsen noted.

“We are a pro-life party,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling told The New York Times, “but if we’re going to be the party of fetal ultrasounds, we’re going to have a problem.”

Christie opposes abortion rights. He vetoed Planned Parenthood funding more than once. The difference is that Christie talks as if he knows governing is his most important mission.

— There are two kinds of Republicans: those who think Democrats are the big problem with Washington and those who blame other Republicans.

From opposing corners, Cuccinelli and Christie fall into the latter category.

Cuccinelli’s tea party shut down the federal government in a failed effort to defund Obamacare. That stunt boomeranged — and cost Cuccinelli votes from angry families of furloughed federal workers.

“Sometimes I feel like our party cares more about winning the argument than they care about winning elections,” Christie told CNN. He’s right. The shutdown was a bust. But if Christie wants to win in 2016, he shouldn’t lecture the base. If lectures won elections, Cuccinelli would be governor-elect.

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com.

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