FALLS CHURCH, Virginia (AP) — Two governor's races next month offer a revealing window into the fight for the future of the Republican Party
In Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli is trying to rally hardcore conservatives, rather than count on moderates, in a politically divided state where he trails in the polls. His strategy has been complicated by his ties to the small-government tea party movement that instigated this month's partial government shutdown and brought the United States to the brink of a debt default.
In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is taking a bipartisan approach as he is heavily favored to win re-election in a Democratic leaning state. The popular, pragmatic Republican is contemplating a presidential run while pushing for a more inclusive party that can win in Democratic territory.
Taken together, the Virginia and New Jersey races ahead of the Nov. 5 vote show the two sides of an intense internal debate in the Republican Party. The tea party wing argues that the party needs to hold firm to its conservative principles, while business-friendly moderates seek a more results-oriented approach that appeals to an increasingly diverse electorate.
Republicans are closely watching the two races for clues to help craft the party's playbook in next year's congressional midterm elections, when the party hopes to take control of the Senate and protect its hold on the House of Representatives. They are watching for fallout from the fiscal crisis that gripped Washington for weeks as Republican demands to gut President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and reduce government spending accomplished neither.
Off-year gubernatorial races often act as early warning signs ahead of midterm elections in Congress. In 2009, victories by Republicans a year after Obama's election served as a precursor to the tea party-led Republican wave in the 2010 congressional elections in which the party regained control of the House.
Across the U.S., nasty Republican primaries already are shaping up as tea party-backed challengers prepare to take on congressional incumbents with ties to the party establishment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. In recent weeks, business-friendly candidates have started to step forward in some districts to challenge tea party lawmakers.
Virginia has elected a governor from the party not occupying the White House in every governor's race since 1977, but a victory by Cuccinelli's opponent, former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe, would break that streak.
Cuccinelli has promoted his role as the first state attorney general to challenge Obama's health care overhaul. But he is trailing as McAuliffe links him to tea party luminaries like Sen. Ted Cruz, who championed the Republicans' failed shutdown strategy. The shutdown took a toll in Virginia, a state that borders Washington and has a large number of federal employees and military personnel.
Cuccinelli's campaign has also been hurt by a political scandal involving accusations of lavish gift-giving by a political supporter to the current Republican governor and his family. Cuccinelli himself had accepted more than $18,000 worth of gifts from the supporter and his company, then gave a Richmond charity $18,000 after criticism of the governor grew.
In New Jersey, Christie is drawing support from a broad coalition of voters across the political spectrum. His response to Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the East Coast last year, remains a constant refrain, allowing him to talk about working with Obama. On Monday, Christie backed down from his opposition to a court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages.
Christie has competed for women, black and Latino voters in New Jersey — key components of Obama's coalition — and highlighted endorsements from Democratic officials.
He has tried to distance himself from the party's most conservative members. He stayed away when Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, headlined a tea party rally this month to support a staunchly conservative Senate candidate. Instead of joining Palin, Christie addressed Hispanic leaders.
"Virginia Republicans decided to go one way and the New Jersey Republicans decided to go another way," said former Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. "It seems to be working in one state and not working in another."
Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Falls Church, Virginia, Philip Elliott in Sterling, Virginia, and Steve Peoples in Edison, New Jersey, contributed to this report.