If It's November 7, the GOP Must Be Fighting Over Its Past and Future

November 7, 2013, dawns the exact same way Nov. 7, 2012, did, with the GOP at each others' throats over an unexpected loss —  and there's no reason to think that the divided party will get less fragmented any time soon.

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November 7, 2013, dawns the exact same way November 7, 2012, did, with Republicans at each others' throats over an unexpected electoral loss — this year, Ken Cuccinelli's defeat in Virginia's gubernatorial race. But, with 2016 only ("only"!) three years away and the likely contenders sniping and whispering, there's no reason to think that the divided party will get less fragmented any time soon.

The surprise in Virginia was due in large part to polling indicating that Democrat Terry McAuliffe's lead was larger than it turned out to be. (There's some good analysis at Politico of why that happened; in short, whites voted more Republican than expected.) Those polls sparked apathy among an establishment already luke-warm on an unabashedly conservative candidate. Or so conservatives claim. We went over a number of the complaints on Wednesday — Rush Limbaugh railing against the idea that moderation was the key; Erick Erickson mourning his friend's defeat. These were largely laments reflecting the tension within the party: The far-right saying that moving farther right was the best way to win. (Limbaugh: "[T]he Republican Party is the real party of the center. At least the conservative wing of the Republican Party is the real center...")

Over the past 24 hours, the anger has only rippled outward. At Politico, the headline is "Virginia triggers GOP circular firing squad." At The Washington Post, it's "Close result in Va. governor’s race hardens GOP divisions." At MSNBC, "Finger pointing, not unity, follows Cuccinelli loss." The idea that the loss would prompt unity seems optimistic, but the point stands. And this, a year to the day after Republicans woke up stinging from the defeat of Mitt Romney.

The critiques come in three flavors. The conservative version, listed above. The establishment version, blaming Cuccinelli. And the can't-we-all-get-along version, banging the same drum for the past 365 days. From the Post obituary:

“The lesson is that a party divided is going to lose,” said Pete Snyder, a Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur who served as Cuccinelli’s finance chairman. “The Democrats weren’t happy with their candidate, but they were united. Ken Cuccinelli had to deal with Melrose Place.”

"The fact that there is at least a kernel of truth to all the explanations," Politico writes, "only guarantees that the debate will continue for a good long while."

That's not the only reason the recriminations and infighting will continue. Soon, it won't be the primary one, pun intended. Chris Christie's romp in New Jersey couldn't have been better timed to position him for the 2016 presidential race, and perhaps couldn't have been timed worse for any hopes Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus may have had of unifying the various pieces of his party. Christie's likely primary opponents moved quickly to do what New Jersey Democrats couldn't: throw up roadblocks between Christie and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — or at least his staff — is busy rebutting claims that his shutdown ruined Cuccinelli's chances. But his colleagues are not. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio explained that Christie's win in New Jersey was a unique beast. "[W]e need to understand that some of these races don't apply to future races," he told CNN. "Every race is different — it has a different set of factors — but I congratulate [Christie] on his win." You get lucky, Christie, but congrats. Then there's Sen. Rand Paul, who took issue with the earworm "Stronger Than the Storm" ads, which ran in heavy rotation in the region on the state's dime, ostensibly to boost tourism. But they also, Paul claims, served as de facto Christie 2013 / 2016 spots.

"Ya think there might be a conflict of interest there? You know that’s a real problem. That’s why when people who are trying to do good and trying to use taxpayer dollars wisely they are offended to see our money spent on political ads. You know that’s just offensive."

Rubio, Paul, and Cruz have been jockeying to be the conservative right's candidate in the 2016 primaries. Which makes Christie, who, for now, owns the middle, a threat: the three of them could split Tea Party support allowing Christie to sweep up the moderate vote. That means that all three — and any other 2016 contender — needs to come at Christie hard and frequently.

Which means that the split within the GOP is not going to heal any time soon — particularly not if key 2014 races go the way of Cuccinelli. If Pete Snyder, quoted above, is right, and a party divided is doomed to failure, don't expect much GOP success before 2016. That election is three years from tomorrow. Priebus and Christie and everyone else in the party better hope they're not having the same conversation then.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.