Cuccinelli was able to come as close as he did by portraying the race as a referendum on Obamacare, focusing on that issue to the virtual exclusion of almost everything else during the dying days of the campaign. His diehard opposition to Obama’s signature legislative achievement allowed him to rally the predominantly white Republican base, 92 percent of whom wound up voting for him. That’s only 3 percentage points fewer than the incumbent Republican, Bob McDonnell, garnered four years ago.
Though most polls showed him losing by big margins, Cuccinelli was able to close much of the gap as the battle was ending—and might even have been able to overtake McAuliffe if the race had lasted a few more days. And he managed to do that even though McAuliffe outspent him by a nearly 2-1 ratio and Democrat celebrities, including both Bill and Hillary Clinton and Obama himself, made appearances on McAuliffe’s behalf. For his part, Cuccinelli paraded Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.
What I take away from all this is simple: Despite all the talk about how the Republican establishment is gearing up to retake control of its party from the lunatic fringe, the Tea Party is far from being defeated. If my hunch that Cuccinelli would have prevailed if Sarvis hadn’t drained away some of his support is right, Tea Party proponents will see little reason to back away from their extremist positions. In fact, they might become even more entrenched in them. And that means our politics are bound to become even uglier, more divisive and less productive. I may sell the house yet.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.