WASHINGTON — The center of gravity in American politics moved left in Tuesday’s off-year elections.
Republicans took a big step back from the Tea Party. An ebullient progressive was elected mayor of New York City. And a Democrat was elected governor of Virginia after campaigning unapologetically as a supporter of gun control and a liberal on social issues.
The one bright spot for Republicans, Chris Christie’s landslide re-election in New Jersey, was won precisely because Christie ran briskly away from the party’s right wing and developed a civil relationship with President Obama. His victory speech spoke of the need for politicians to go to places where they might be “uncomfortable” — exactly where the Tea Party does not want to go.
And in the one direct intraparty fight over the GOP’s future, a Tea Party candidate lost a primary in Alabama to a more traditional conservative. A telling distinction between the victor, Bradley Byrne, and the defeated Dean Young: Byrne said that Obama was born in the United States; Young suggested the president was born in Kenya.
Young’s persistent “birtherism” is a reminder of how far right the American political discussion veered after the elections of 2009 and the midterms of 2010. The pendulum is swinging back.
And this week was not just a story of the Republican Party struggling to disentangle itself from extremism, or of the revival of moderation. The Democratic victories in New York and Virginia plainly marked the triumph of two different kinds of progressivism.
Terry McAuliffe may have won in Virginia as a middle-of-the-road, business-friendly champion of “jobs.” But he was also firmly liberal on gay marriage and abortion, and cast Ken Cuccinelli, his opponent, as a social troglodyte.
More than that: McAuliffe was outspoken against the National Rifle Association and in favor of a variety of gun-safety measures, including background checks. McAuliffe did not shrink from his F-rating from the NRA. He boasted about it.
His outspokenness was rewarded. He won the suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., overwhelmingly and built a large margin among women. The power of the gun-control issue should not be lost in the sometimes foggy talk about centrism. This should embolden supporters of sane gun laws.
In New York City, Bill de Blasio built the day’s second landslide on another sort of liberalism, a populist assault on rising inequality. In a victory speech that will be read as a manifesto for a new progressivism, de Blasio declared that inequality “is the defining challenge of our time.” He renewed his campaign call for modest tax increases on the best-off to finance education programs to give poorer kids a chance to join the ranks of the successful.