By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For deeply divided Republicans, Tuesday's elections in New Jersey and Virginia did little to resolve the feud between hardline conservatives and establishment pragmatists who worry the party is drifting too far to the right to win statewide and national elections.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's easy re-election in a mostly Democratic state was an emphatic signal of the appeal of Republicans who talk about reaching across party lines. It also solidified Christie as an early favorite in the race for the 2016 Republican U.S. presidential nomination.
But the closer-than-expected race for Virginia governor encouraged Tea Party and social conservatives, and seemed to ensure that their top issue - an uncompromising assault on Democratic President Barack Obama's healthcare law - will be front and center in the 2014 midterm elections.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli, a staunch social conservative and a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, narrowly lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia.
Television network exit polls showed Democrats succeeded in painting Cuccinelli - an ardent opponent of abortion and gay rights and a supporter of conservative causes as state attorney general - as too extreme for a politically divided state that backed Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
Republicans were heartened that Cuccinelli appeared to close the gap in polls during the race's final days by blasting the Obamacare law, which has been undermined by a technically troubled website that has stifled enrollment in its health insurance offerings.
Off-year elections often are unreliable indicators of broader U.S. political trends, and this year's contests offered something for everyone. Analysts said the results showed an electorate yearning for politicians focused more on results than ideology.
"It's impossible not to see the contrast between Cuccinelli and Christie - and the clear implication is that there is a real limit to how far a Tea Party candidate can go in a state that is politically competitive," said political scientist Quentin Kidd of Christopher Newport University in Virginia.
That could serve as a warning to conservative Republicans heading into the 2014 midterm elections and the 2016 White House race. The presidential battle will be fought in swing states such as Virginia, where Republican candidates must reach beyond conservative, evangelical Christian voters downstate and appeal to voters in fast-growing, Democratic-leaning northern Virginia, just outside Washington.
The debate over what led to Cuccinelli's loss was in full bloom on Wednesday, with some conservatives blaming the party's establishment for not providing enough help to Cuccinelli.
"The GOP establishment, rather than come to the aid of Cuccinelli, left him out hanging," said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. "Just think what would have happened if the business and donor classes of the Republican Party would have helped."
Others blamed the recent shutdown of the U.S. government - instigated by Republican lawmakers aligned with the Tea Party movement - for alienating swing voters, particularly in crucial northern Virginia precincts where McAuliffe, a former national party chairman and close ally of former President Bill Clinton, crushed Cuccinelli.
"Ken Cuccinelli was the first Republican casualty of the government shutdown, but he won't be the last," said Kelly Ward, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Cuccinelli lost to McAuliffe by slightly more than 2 percentage points, but exit polls indicated he narrowly led among voters who said either the economy or healthcare were the most important issues.
In an ominous sign for social conservatives, the polls also showed that Cuccinelli lost badly to McAuliffe among unmarried women and the one in five voters who listed abortion as their top issue.
'DOWN TO THE WIRE'
Cuccinelli's loss was part of a difficult night for the Tea Party movement that also reflected the divide among Republicans.
In a special congressional election in Alabama, a Tea Party-backed candidate, Dean Young, lost to another Republican, Bradley Byrne, who was backed by business interests including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Cuccinelli, who as Virginia's attorney general led the largely unsuccessful legal challenges to Obamacare, said he closed the gap on McAuliffe after many polls showed him trailing badly because of voter concerns about that law.
Exit polls indicated that more than half of Virginia voters opposed the law, which was designed to enable millions of uninsured Americans to obtain affordable medical coverage.
"This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," Cuccinelli told supporters late on Tuesday. "That message will go out to the entire country tonight."
Democrats disagreed, saying their internal polls always had shown McAuliffe with lead of 2 to 4 percentage points and that public polls showing him with a larger edge were inaccurate.
"There was no tightening of the race," Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee said. "This was always going to be a close race."
Republicans have promised to make healthcare a top issue in their push to reclaim control from the Democrats of the U.S. Senate, where they need a net gain of six seats next year.
Senators targeted by conservatives include Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina, all of whom supported Obamacare and represent generally conservative states.
"There is no question Obamacare is now going to be front and center going into 2014," Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said.
Democrats were heartened by the results among unmarried women and the symbolic rejection of Cuccinelli's anti-abortion policies. As state attorney general, he fought to tighten regulations on abortion clinics and defend the state's anti-sodomy laws. He has been an outspoken critic of gay rights, saying that "homosexual acts (are) ... intrinsically wrong."
"Our work isn't done. We now have to turn our attention to the 21 states where anti-choice governors (opposed to abortion rights) are either up for re-election or are planning to retire in 2014," Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a post-election message to supporters.
A BOOST FOR CHRISTIE
Cuccinelli's struggle to expand his appeal beyond his conservative base has become a familiar tale for Republicans, who have seen a series of Tea Party conservatives lose winnable statewide races in recent elections by driving away independents, women and minorities.
In New Jersey, Christie seemed to offer a potential solution to that problem, rolling up victory margins that are certain to bolster his argument for the White House in 2016 and performing better than expected among voters Republicans typically struggle to attract.
Exit polls showed he won more than 50 percent of the state's Hispanic voters, about 20 percent of blacks and more than three in 10 Democrats.
The exit polls also indicated that Christie's appeal, even in New Jersey, does have its limits. In a hypothetical matchup for president with Democrat Hillary Clinton - the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady who is considering a 2016 run for president - Christie would not win his home state, the polls indicated.
Cuccinelli's solid showing in Virginia also was a reminder of the challenge Christie would face in proving his conservative credentials in Republican presidential primaries, in which voters typically are further to the right than the party's overall membership.
Mike Podhorzer, a Democrat and political director of the AFL-CIO labor organization, said that when a Republican wins in a mostly Democratic state, that politician can expect to get positive press. But "we had a governor from Massachusetts who ran for president and it didn't work out so well," Podhorzer added, referring to Republican Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign.
McAuliffe's win suggested the coalition of voters who propelled Obama to victories in Virginia - and the turnout effort that got them to the polls - can be reassembled in races without the president at the top of the ticket.
McAuliffe used the Obama campaign's data-driven voter turnout model to identify and communicate with voters, and doubled the number of field offices from Obama's 2012 campaign with paid staff members in Virginia. McAuliffe outspent Cuccinelli by about $14 million and spent nearly $33 million on the race, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political spending.
(Editing by David Lindsey and Will Dunham)