A Republican candidate could have, and probably should have, won this year's Virginia governor race against a Democrat with shallow roots in the state, no previous experience in elective office and a host of unanswered questions about his business dealings.
By the same token, Republicans could have faced stiff headwinds in their effort to hold on to the governorship in New Jersey, a state President Obama won last year by nearly 18 percentage points.
OBAMA COUSIN: Those surrender Republicans
But the party's nominee in Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, lost narrowly to former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe. And in New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie barely broke a sweat in his landslide re-election over state Sen. Barbara Buono.
Despite all the election night punditry, Tuesday's results probably don't portend much about the 2014 elections, much less 2016. But the results do hold important lessons for the GOP if it wants to field competitive candidates in national and statewide elections.
Cuccinelli, a longtime culture warrior, took hard-line positions on abortion, gay rights and climate change that allowed his opponent to cast him as "too extreme for Virginia."
Christie, in contrast, found widespread support with a mix of fiscal conservatism, strong leadership in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, political pragmatism and personal authenticity.
The message to Republicans should be obvious: Stop nominating candidates who are far out of the political mainstream. This should happen naturally over time as Republicans grow weary of losing. But some key reforms would help.
An obvious one is to ditch state conventions that allow a small cadre of party activists to choose nominees. This year's nomination of Cuccinelli — and an even more extreme candidate for lieutenant governor — was the result of party activists in Virginia scrapping a primary in favor of a convention.
In 2010, a similar move in Utah led to the replacement of Sen. Robert Bennett with Tea Party darling Mike Lee, whose backing of the recent shutdown helped push the GOP's approval to historic lows — and hurt Cuccinelli's campaign in a state with nearly 200,000 federal workers.
Republicans might also want to look at opening up more of their primaries to independent voters. Open primaries tend to produce more centrist candidates who are more competitive in blue and purple states.
In a nation that benefits from having two vibrant, ideologically diverse parties, Republicans risk relegating themselves to the role of an obstructionist minority. In 2010 and 2012, they threw away five easily winnable Senate seats by nominating extreme candidates.
They might have also lost the White House last year by forcing their presidential nominee — Mitt Romney — to tack so far to the right to secure the nomination that he couldn't win the general election.
Now they have lost a governor's race in Virginia that was easily winnable. Their road to success will be paved with more candidates like Chris Christie, and fewer like Ken Cuccinelli.
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