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Column: Why New Jersey and Virginia matter to the GOP - and its future with black voters

By Reihan Salam

Next week's election will be an important one for the future of the GOP. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is up for re-election, and by all accounts he is set to defeat his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Barbara Buono, by a wide margin. Christie is widely considered a serious candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and his ability to win support among independents and Democrats in his home state will be a central part of his appeal.

But in Virginia, it increasingly looks as though Terry McAuliffe, an entrepreneur and investor best known as a political ally of former President Bill Clinton, will defeat Ken Cuccinelli, a staunch conservative much admired by the Tea Party right. At least some conservative activists saw Cuccinelli, who as Virginia's attorney general played a leading role in constitutional challenges against the Affordable Care Act and other Obama administration initiatives, as a potential presidential contender. A bruising defeat against McAuliffe will put an end to such talk.

There are many things that separate Christie from Cuccinelli. Having served as governor for the better part of the last four years, Christie is a familiar figure. He began his tenure with a series of polarizing confrontations with New Jersey's powerful public employee unions, yet he has spent the last year on a more conciliatory note, motivated in part by a desire to help his state recover from the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy. In a heavily Democratic state, Christie has distanced himself from congressional Republicans, and he has framed himself as a pragmatic reformer who stands above the political fray. This position is particularly valuable in light of parlous state of the GOP brand. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the Republican party now has a 22 percent positive rating and a 53 percent negative rating across the country, and it's a safe bet that the picture is even worse in New Jersey.

Cuccinelli, unlike Christie, has long been an unapologetically ideological conservative, and in the wake of the government shutdown, Democrats have succeeded in characterizing him as politically extreme. Whereas Virginia's current governor, Republican Bob McDonnell, fought his Democratic opponent to a standstill in northern Virginia's populous suburbs, Cuccinelli is running far behind Cuccinelli in this same all-important region.

There is one difference between Christie and Cuccinelli that has yet to attract enough attention, and that is how both Republicans are faring with African-Americans. A new survey of Virginia voters from the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy finds that while Cuccinelli wins a plurality (44 percent) of the white vote, he has the support of only 4 percent of black voters. Meanwhile, recent polls have found that Christie attracts around 30 percent of black voters. Even if Christie doesn't perform quite as well with African-Americans on Election Day, there is little doubt that he'll break into double-digits.

Since the New Deal era, Democrats have tended to outperform among black voters, compared to Republicans. Yet the gap has become particularly pronounced over the past decade. In 2004, George W. Bush won 11 percent of black voters, roughly in line with how Republicans fared with African-Americans since the late 1970s. In 2012, however, Mitt Romney won a mere 6 percent of the black vote. Jamelle Bouie of the Daily Beast has thus argued that Republicans would be well-advised to focus on wooing black voters, as doing so would greatly damage Democratic prospects in swing states like Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida.

And while Republican political strategists have tended to focus on the growing Latino electorate, it is important to keep in mind that while African-Americans represent a smaller share of the U.S. population than Latinos (13.1 percent compared to 16.9 percent), they represent a slightly larger share of the electorate. This reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to be eligible to vote than their Latino counterparts, a disproportionately large share of whom are not citizens, and turnout rates among eligible African-American voters are higher than turnout rates among eligible Latino voters. So while blacks represented 12 percent of the population of eligible voters in 2012, they represented 13 percent of the voters who turned out that year. Latinos represented 11 percent of the eligible population and 10 percent of the voting population.

The harder question is how Republicans might appeal to black voters. The party has embraced a wide array of conservative African-American candidates in the hope that they would have crossover appeal. After Jim DeMint resigned from his U.S. Senate seat, he was replaced by South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott, an African-American aligned with the South Carolina GOP's Tea Party wing. Former congressman Allen West and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson have also garnered great enthusiasm in conservative circles, and the retired corporate executive Herman Cain was briefly one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. So far, at least, black Tea Party candidates have failed to make deep inroads among black voters. For example, Cuccinelli's running mate, E.W. Jackson, is an African- American Christian minister known for his apocalyptic tone, and the Wason Center finds that he has the support of only 1 percent of black voters in Virginia, a number well within the margin of error.

Christie's re-election effort offers a different model for appealing to African-Americans. Rather than rely on surrogates, Christie has spent considerable time campaigning in New Jersey's heavily-black urban cores. His praise of President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy earned him the respect, if not the support, of many black Democrats last year, and he's won at least some of them over to his side by championing school reform, criminal justice reform and other measures that will have a palpable impact on African-American communities. And though Christie has often emphasized the importance of spending discipline, he has been open to state and federal policies, like the new Medicaid expansion, that are seen as beneficial to low-income households.

It's not at all clear that a Republican presidential candidate could win over African-American voters across the country quite as successfully as Christie has won them over in New Jersey. But Christie has demonstrated that shifting to the center can pay off.

PHOTO: New Jersey governor Chris Christie greets an attendee of a statewide prayer service at The New Hope Baptist Church on the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy in Newark, New Jersey on October 29, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

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