The Tea Party lives to fight another day.
On a night when a handful of local elections took on national significance, the biggest surprise occurred in Virginia, where a hard-line Republican candidate for governor – left for dead after being badly outspent and trailing in all polls – nearly earned a draw with his Democratic opponent.
Terry MacAuliffe caught and passed state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as vote counters worked their way through the ballots cast in the populous counties that border the District of Columbia. That was the expected outcome, as was Republican incumbent and presidential contender Chris Christie's overwhelming victory in the governor's race in New Jersey.
Mr. MacAuliffe, a millionaire businessman known more for his prowess as a fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, told supporters gathered in Tyson's Corner, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, that his victory was a win for the "mainstream" over the principles-before-pragmatism politics of the Tea Party, with which Mr. Cuccinelli is aligned.
But Mr. MacAuliffe's victory – 48 per cent of the vote to 46 per cent for Mr. Cuccinelli – fell short of the decisive victory over the Tea Party that the Democratic establishment was seeking. By contrast, Mr. Christie won a second term with more than 60 per cent of the vote, a recognition of his handling of Superstorm Sandy a year ago and his willingness to work with Democratic lawmakers in one of America's more liberal states.
Mr. Christie is a rising political star that has done nothing to quell speculation that he will entertain a run at the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Mr. MacAuliffe, on the other hand, was widely seen as a less-than-ideal candidate who will assume public office for the first time. He was born in upstate New York, and only took up residence in Virginia after he became a fixture in the backrooms of Washington. In a proud southern state that boasts George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as native sons, Mr. MacAuliffe's shallow roots were a weakness. Mr. Cuccinelli sought advantage by mocking Mr. MacAuliffe's New York accent on the campaign trail.
Mr. MacAuliffe spent almost twice as much as his opponent and benefited from help on the campaign trail from Mr. Clinton, the former president and one of the country's more popular political figures, and President Barack Obama. To come close against those kinds of odds only will embolden a movement that relishes its underdog status and puts winning second to fighting for what it believes.
"There are a lot of questions people are going to be asking and that is, was leaving Cuccinelli alone in the first week of October, a smart move?" the Republican candidate's campaign manager, Chris LaCivita, told the Washington Post, a reference to how little support they received from national Republican organizations. "We were on our own."
Mr. MacAuliffe inundated Virginian television screens with negative ads that attacked Mr. Cuccinelli's socially conservative views, especially the Republican's opposition to abortion. MacAuliffe ads were in heavy rotation in northern Virginia in the final days of the campaign, as his campaign targeted the younger, college-educated voters who have relatively recently settled in Washington's suburbs to take jobs in government and the region's burgeoning technology sector.
"I think every single person is glad the TV ads are over," Mr. MacAuliffe said early in his victory speech, a quip that suggests he knows his victory was less than an overwhelming endorsement of his candidacy.
To be sure, an emboldened insurgency is one thing; absolute victory is quite another.
Mr. Christie's victory speech also was an introduction to how he will position himself to win the Republican presidential nomination, should he opt to make the attempt.
In his romp, Mr. Christie won more than 60 per cent of the votes cast by men and about 60 per cent of those cast by women. He received as many votes from Latinos as did his Democratic challenger, an unheard of result for a Republican, as the party advocates stricter immigration rules and cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Mr. Christie told his supporters that his priority is to "get things done," a subtle jab at Tea Party Republicans, who provoked last month's budget showdown in Washington, which resulted in the cessation of all non-essential federal services for 16 days.
"Leadership is much less about talking than it is about listening," Mr. Christie said. "If we can do this in Trenton, New Jersey," he added later, referring to the state capital, "maybe the folks in DC should tune in on their TVs and see how it is done."
Moderate Republicans scored a second win in a primary for the right to represent the party in a special election to replace a departing congressman from Alabama in December.
The district, centred around Mobile, is an easy win for the Republican candidate. (Mitt Romney earned more than 60 per cent of the vote in 2012.) Primary races are how the Tea Party rose to prominence, organizing its more zealous followers to secure nominations in safe races.
Now, the Republican establishment is pushing back. In Mobile, business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, donated heavily to the campaign of Bradley Burne, a former state senator.
The business lobby normally saves its money for elections rather than primaries. But last month's government shutdown has spurred the Chamber and others to try to take out Tea Party candidates at an earlier stage. Mr. Burne faced Dean Young, a local real-estate developer who praised the shutdown, declared his opposition to keeping John Boehner as speaker, and said he believe Mr. Obama was from Kenya.
Mr. Burne won the contest with about 52 per cent of the vote, according to Politico.
Back in Virginia, Mr. McAuliffe too said he would be a governor who would work with supporters and opponents alike to get things done. Rather than a blue tie that is typical of Democratic politicians on election night, Mr. McAuliffe took the stage in a purple tie – a nod to Virginia's status as a "purple" swing state that is a near equal mix of blue Democratic supporters and red Republicans.
It's unlikely symbolic gestures will quiet the Tea Party movement.
Mr. Cuccinelli mounted his late-stage rally by turning his campaign into a referendum on Obamacare, the president's 2010 overhaul of the health-care system that has become intensely controversial. Already unpopular with many Republicans, the botched rollout last month of the website on which Americans were supposed to shop for mandatory health plans has caused the distaste to spread into the wider population.
The lukewarm endorsement of Mr. McAuliffe will give Democratic leaders pause and the Tea Party reason to fight on. The movement will see Obamacare as an alternate path to victory than the one being offered by Mr. Christie.
"Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15-million...This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare," Mr. Cuccinelli told his supporters in Richmond, Virginia, according to the Washington Post. "That message will go out across America tonight."