RICHMOND, Va.—Shortly after 7 p.m., when the polls had just closed, I entered the saddest room in Virginia politics. A small dining room in the basement of the Berkeley Hotel, described by a Republican friend as “the third or fourth nicest hotel in the city,” had been set aside for the victory party of lieutenant governor nominee E.W. Jackson. Posters of Jackson—half of them bearing his signature, all of them with gigantic pictures of Jackson’s face—hung over copious selections of sweet and savory snacks. A projector screen alternated between election results and a slideshow of the candidate posing with voters on the trail.
That was all happening a solid 10-minute stroll away from the actual Republican Party of Virginia bash—a reminder of the circumstances that gave the deeply flawed Jackson the nomination, and wrecked 2013 for the GOP here. Larnie Algood, an elderly Republican who’d worked the polls that day, chatted with the three other Republicans who’d gotten in early. “We definitely turned out the vote in Mechanicsville,” he said, referring to a Republican city nearby. “That was strong. But wouldn’t shock me, if [Attorney General candidate Mark] Obenshain was the only one who won. It’d be a shame if that happened.”
That was at 7 p.m. An hour later, Republicans at the downtown Marriott were whooping as the early exit polls, with GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli down by 7, were replaced by exit polls showing him down only 2. For two more hours, they milled around and congratulated each other and remarked on how close they’d made this thing—hey, they even won those House of Delegates races the media told them they’d lose!
Asking the 2013 elections to be a referendum on something big was always a stretch. There were statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia; there were races for mayor in New York and Houston and Detroit and Seattle; there was a special Republican primary for the House seat in Mobile, Ala. This Election Day was less a map of America, more a map of one of those scammy cellphone coverage plans that Verizon tells you not to buy.
But it did not humiliate conservatives. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie was re-elected by 22 points—just what the polling predicted—with no coattails. Oh, sure, he became the first Republican candidate since 1998 or so to win the Hispanic vote, but he cut ads and stumped for four state senate candidates, all of whom were losing at the end of the night. In Alabama it was Dean Young, a social conservative who remade himself as a Tea Partier, who lost to an experienced, Chamber of Commerce–backed candidate named Bradley Byrne. Conservatives were largely fine with this, as Young was a know-nothing who couldn’t even name the House minority leader when pop-quizzed. “Thank goodness,” emailed conservative columnist Quin Hillyer (who’d run in the first round of this primary) after the vote.
Ah, but in Virginia—in Virginia, conservatives went the distance. They’d been written off since the end of summer (by reporters like, well, me) and they’d been outspent by $15 million. They still held on to most of their vote, even with Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis surprising everyone and pulling 7 percent. This, they said again and again, proved that Cuccinelli’s closing argument was right. He kept saying the election was “a referendum on Obamacare,” and then he almost won.
The meme spread slowly as the election party dragged on. As some of the Republican legislative candidates who’d won gave their perfunctory speeches (Del. James P. “Jimmie” Massie focused on the double threat of financial and moral collapse), I chatted with Monica Marinacci, a Republican who propped an Uncle Sam “Beanie Baby” bear on the table as she talked. “I feel it’s God’s timing that the Obamacare cancellation notices came when they did,” she said. “Two weeks ago this would not have been close. But everyone knows someone who has gotten a cancellation notice.”
After the exit poll was tweaked, I ran into Matt Mackowiak, whose Fight for Tomorrow PAC had been on the air with a grim ad about how Democrats would “Detroit”—a verb, meaning ruin—Virginia. “That ad moved people by 5 points when it was shown,” he said. Even more effective was the campaign to make the election a choice on Obamacare. “If the election was two weeks from now, Cuccinelli would have won.”
The mood at the party kept on brightening. Election celebrations, when the races are tight, always have a guile-free sort of glee. If a Democrat’s winning a close race in Virginia, the race only “breaks” for him when the final 10 percent of precincts come in, clustered in the D.C. suburbs and the coastal cities. The result on Tuesday was a lot of random cheering—and the ringing of a bell. John Wallmeyer, a Tea Party activist who owned a tricorner hat, a colonial coat, and a bell, had been at this hotel at the movement’s height, when Cuccinelli addressed a 2010 Tea Party convention in Richmond.
Normally, I refrain from interviewing activists who’ve dressed to become the craziest people in the room. But I’d covered that convention, and honestly wondered what Wallmeyer thought of what the movement had become in the wake of this close loss. As he explained that the closeness might stop “the establishment from getting wishy washy,” we heard a clatter, and turned to see a group of immigration reform activists occupying the stage that had been left empty by the slow count.
“What do we want?” they shouted.
“When do we want it?”
The Republicans teamed with hotel security to frog-march the protesters away. It took a while, especially as it concerned one pugnacious protester who pulled away from a guard and sought refuge in a crowd. They provided no refuge.
“Immigration reform!” shouted the protester.
“They take our jobs!” heckled an older woman.
The protester was ejected, and not long after that, the suburban votes came in to put McAuliffe in the lead.
It was too late to change the mood. The truly despondent were leaving; the mildly interested stuck around to see what Cuccinelli would say. Brian Baker, a consultant with the super PAC Ending Spending, found a good vantage point and talked to me about the little-noticed work his group had done. It had commissioned a poll that found a 1-point race, catching Cuccinelli’s late momentum. It had spent maybe $500,000 on ads, many of them on Web ads telling voters to pick McAuliffe if they wanted to support Obamacare.
“You can win a referendum on Obamacare,” said Baker. “That’s a lesson of this race.”
When conservatives start to plot for 2014, that’s the lesson they’ll internalize. They will not be told, by “the establishment,” that they fought on a losing issue, with a candidate who ran 12 points behind his own 2009 statewide vote, in a party that threw away elections because they didn’t nominate moderates. Not at all. Party Chairman Pat Mullins told revelers that Terry McAuliffe’s 48 percent of the vote gave him “no mandate,” and that the “referendum on Obamacare” should shock the other side.
Ken Cuccinelli, in his last foreseeable speech as a candidate, insisted that this was true. “Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million,” he said, “this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare.”
“Run for Senate!” yelled a voice in the crowd.