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The return of the moderate Republican

The Tea Party still gets bang for their buck

(Source: Walter Burns, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Source: Walter Burns, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the aftermath of October’s 16-day shutdown cum near debt-default, I reported about efforts among America’s Big Business to channel money in support of anti-Tea Party candidates. The idea is to help elect lawmakers who won’t gamble with the full faith and credit of the United States. This week’s elections were a test-run — and the results are pretty good.

Business favourite Republican Bradley Byrne defeated his conservative opponent in an Alabama House race; Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat self-defined Tea Party affiliate Republican Ken Cuccinelli II to become the new governor of Virginia. Both wins benefited from a rainfall of campaign cheques from the business community, including a US$199,000 donation to Byrne from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a US$1.1 million gift to McAuliffe from the Republican New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PAC.

And then, of course, there was Chris Christie, the New Jersey Republican governor who swept to re-election victory trumpeting his centrist appeal. Though that race featured no Tea Party threat and an underdog Democratic opponent, it was a closely watched one in business circles, amid hopeful whispers that Christie will run for president in 2016. The question wasn’t so much whether the governor would win, but whether he would win by a landslide and score decent levels of support among traditionally Democratic constituencies such as women and Hispanics. The governor, it turned out, was able to check all those boxes and used his acceptance speech to sound a national political theme. “Tonight dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey,” he told an ecstatic crowd on election night. It’s a message that resonates with businesses across the country.

Good-bye Tea Party, then? Not quite. The apparent resurgence of the pragmatic wing of the GOP comes with some important caveats. In Alabama and, even more so, Virginia the margin by which Byrne and McAuliffe outspent their respective opponents was considerably wider than their advantage at the polls. The Tea Party, in other words, got more electoral bang for its buck. Also, it remains unclear whether Christie’s triumph in a typically Democratic state can actually be scaled into a Republican presidential primary victory or whether it is even a template for candidates running in deep-red Tea Party strongholds.

Still, moderate Republicans have reason to feel optimistic. The Alabama and Virginia races might signal the beginning of a sustained financial effort by the business community to curtail the influence of the ideological sect of the GOP. No matter how much money it takes, that’s good news for anyone fed up with the constant political hostage-taking in Congress. Also, Christie might have a better chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination than many give him credit for. The classic argument is that his moderate image won’t fare well among the more conservative card-carrying Republicans who typically show up to vote in primary races. But Christie’s electoral strategy is clearly two-pronged. On the one hand, yes, he is known for reaching across the isle, being popular among New Jersey unions and courting the minority vote. On the other hand, though, he has a solid track-record as a fiscal conservative and notoriously holds anti-abortion and gay-marriage views. He might be pragmatic, but his conservative credentials are solid. His philosophy, he recently told Politico, is “compromise without compromising your principles.”

Bill Kristol, an influential Washington pundit and outspoken social conservative, for one, seems just fine with that. In a recent radio interview in which he lambasted Republican Rand Paul’s presidential bid, he called Christie a “top-tier” candidate for the 2016 race. That must be music to Big Business’s ears.

Erica Alini is a reporter based in Cambridge, Mass., and a regular contributor to CanadianBusiness.com, where she covers the U.S. economy.

Follow @ealini