Defeated Virginia Republicans ponder unpopular choices

Ken Cuccinelli with his family as he makes a speech following his defeat Image copyright AP
Image caption Not all Republicans were behind Cuccinelli in the Virginia race

For the Republican Party, this night is not only the tale of two elections, but of two possible paths. I am at the rally of the defeated candidate in Virginia, watching the victorious Republican in New Jersey on the big screen in the hotel ball room.

The loser in this race, Ken Cuccinelli, comes into the hotel ballroom to country music, cheers and waves. Some think Republicans lost here because of him and his hard line.

He's a social conservative accused by his opponents of wanting to bring back anti-sodomy laws and trying to make divorce more difficult. Backed by the radical right-wing Tea Party movement, he fought this campaign against the background of a government shut down forced by his allies. And he's not apologising.

In his speech, he promises that the battle is not over. After him, another Republican comes on promising that they will block everything their opponents want to do, and saying the elected governor has no mandate to act.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The face of Republican victory on Tuesday night did not come from Virginia

Earlier, the head of the Virginia Republican Party makes a bitter little speech accusing the Democrats of running the dirtiest campaign he's ever seen, demonising decent men, who love their families, their country and their God. It is not exactly a sign of profound self-reflection. Another warns the country is in economic and spiritual decline. "We can fix it by repealing Obamacare," he says.

This is the Republican mood in this vital state, a state that is slipping through their grasp. For decades it voted solidly Republican in the presidential election. But in 2008 it voted for Obama. It voted for him again in 2012 in slightly bigger numbers. It is changing, becoming less white, less rural, with an important Hispanic population. In those respects, it is like much of the United States.

You might think that when Chris Christie, victor in the traditionally Democratic state of New Jersey, where he crushed the opposition, appeared on the twin screens, thumping home a message of working together, of one America, of buckling down and getting the job done, they would have fallen silent and listened.

They carried on chatting.

'One scary dude'

But one group I spoke to afterwards said that it was what their party needed - a dose of moderation and compromise. But they were in a minority. More typical was the man who told me: "Reach across the aisle and they'll bite your arm off."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Alternative voices were not always welcome at Cuccinelli's campaign

Earlier at a farmers' market just outside Richmond, I spoke to voters, many wearing a badge proclaiming that they had been to the polls. On display were robust carrots, chocolate-coloured peppers, fresh young ginger and chicken fingers - the last for pets to chew on. The views were as varied as the produce, and Ken Cuccinelli divides opinions.

"I don't like him, he's a Tea Party plant and one scary dude," a man munching a kebab told me. A woman selling handmade soap said that "Cuccinelli did stand up to the powers that be, saying he didn't believe in Obamacare, I applaud him for his opinion and standing up".

But this is a state where a quarter of the economy is linked to the federal government and last month's government shutdown was not popular..

One woman told me: "I didn't vote Republican this time, I wanted to make a point. We have to work together and they just want to block things. I vote both ways but I'm shifting, I have to."

Another said: "I don't believe in someone who has to tell a woman what she has to do, we are past all that, it is the 21st Century. Sometimes I've been a Republican but they've got all these Tea Party candidates, and the moderates are realising they are not all that great."

But there is a reason hardline Republicans stand firm. Many of their supporters want them to hang tough. One man, selling bread and vegetables, told me: "I hope he wins, I don't want a Democrat in, the people in power now are extreme lefties, our country was founded on conservatism."

He does think the party needs to alter course, but not in the way most might mean. "The Republicans need to change - but they've been going left for ages, with McCain and all that. They've left their base behind."

Big divide

In the offices of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the big question is whether the Republicans will learn lessons from this defeat. Jeff Shapiro's been the newspaper's political commentator for 30 years.

"They're going to have to take a very long and hard look at this changing electorate," he says.

"This is a state where for a long time the tensions tended to be black and white. Now it is a multi-hued electorate."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption For Cuccinelli supporters, defeat raises a number of questions

He says that is not easy.

"Some Republicans are going to have to make some unpopular and very risky choices, in which they will put their personal ambition on the line in the interests of advancing their party.

"Are they prepared to tell the grassroots what they probably don't want to hear?"

This is an interesting moment.

The Republican party is not fighting about ideology or policy. The vast majority are conservative, pro-life, extremely worried by what they see as a growth of government and high taxation.

But there is a big divide about strategy and mood. Many in the Tea Party furiously want to block everything the other side attempts, worried their country is changing beyond repair.

Some in the leadership and the business community are concerned about this way of doing politics. But they also are the sort who prize loyalty and are hesitant about provoking civil war.

One of those who is not prepared to stay silent is former congressman Steve Latourette who runs the super-PAC (campaign group) Republican Mainstreet Partnership, which is close to the party's leadership,

"You can't just go after angry 57-year-old white men below the Mason-Dixon line and build a national majority, you have to rely on Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, gay Americans, African-Americans, and God forbid women should want to vote for Republicans," he says.

"That's the tension within the party and the Cuccinelli race will be sort of determinative, at least on our side, and people will say, 'Well I guess the more conservative thing didn't work so good today'. This is just the beginning of a long drawn-out battle."

He's right that that battle will take place eventually but I am not sure there will be much more than sporadic skirmishes for the moment.

The leadership hasn't the stomach for it.

What happened tonight in New Jersey could be a lesson about how to win in a state that may not look like natural territory, but they may not be ready to put victory above purity.

This is a good night for Hillary Clinton - Virginia's new governor is a close ally in a key state that she probably needs to win to become president in 2016.

You would think Republicans should start worrying about how they will stop that happening. They probably won't.