This year Virginia and New Jersey will hold gubernatorial elections and for the first time in history both Republican candidates are Italian-American. Both Ken Cuccinelli and Chris Christie bring an element to the Republican Party that is missing; working class ethnic populism.
Despite being nearly six percent of the U.S. population, the GOP has never attempted to court the Italian-American vote. Italian-American Democrats outnumber their Republicans counterparts in the House of Representatives by two to one.
And while the Democrats have given Nancy Pelosi the House Speaker’s gavel and nominated Geraldine Ferraro for Vice President, Republicans haven’t shown nearly as much love.
Italian Americans should overwhelmingly be in the Republican column; they’re more likely to be middle class, blue and white-collar workers, and they have strong cultural ties to family, faith, and community. They have also had more than a century of assimilation since the wave of immigrants from Italy began. They’ve got all the characteristics that establishment Republicans love about Hispanic Americans, without a majority of children being born to unwed mothers.
Ken Cuccinelli and Chris Christie could bridge this gap not only to Italian Americans but also to a large base of ethnic working class voters. If Cuccinelli were to win he would become only the eighth Republican governor of Italian-American ancestry.
Christie and Cuccinelli’s style fits well with the part of the electorate that has become apathetic about politics. Christie is the son of an accountant who was raised on summers at the Jersey Shore and Bruce Springsteen music. Christie strong northeast personality connects with the people who grew in similar circumstances, Christie relates to the struggle and has the bombastic personality that lacks the desperation of being loved that is so often found in politicians.
Similarly, Cuccinelli had much of the same story, born to a middle class family in New Jersey and raised in Virginia. The sole breadwinner of his family of nine — he, his wife and their seven children, his ties to family and faith are shared and energize the Republican base in ways than tax cuts never could. Add that to his strong stances for criminal justice reform and against eminent domain, and you have a creative candidate with strong populist credentials.
Christie and Cuccinelli are a far cry from the Bush, Romney, and McCain families that own compounds, claim several home states, and forget how many houses they actually own.
Christie’s campaign theme is “Jersey Proud”, and he’s fought to end corruption in Trenton and rebuild New Jersey after years of high taxes, a devastating recession, and a series of scandal-ridden politicians.
In Virginia, Cuccinelli’s Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe is a multi-millionaire who has made comments about selling political connections in order to make money. Cannily, Cuccinelli has been running on the campaign theme of “opportunity,” casting himself as working class, anti-crony capitalism, and in a sense, as the anti-Mitt Romney.
Yet both candidates have their detractors within the party.
For many, Christie’s brash personality is off putting. His “love me or go f*** yourself” quality is what originally made him an idol to many conservatives when he took on the teachers union and Democratic legislature in New Jersey. But when he said as much to his fellow Republicans after hugging President Obama in the wake of the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, many of his fellow Republicans called him a big fat RINO.
While no one can accuse Ken Cuccinelli of being a RINO, they use the other dirty word — they call him an extremist. Cuccinelli, a devout Catholic who attends a parish that celebrates the Tridentine Latin Mass, is a defender of the right to life movement, traditional marriage, school vouchers for religious schools, and abstinence-only sex education.
This has drawn the ire from the establishment wing of the party who feel they can no longer campaign on God, guns, and gays. The establishment sees social issues as so 2004.
Christie is well favored to win his re-election while Cuccinelli is still caught lagging in a very close race. If Christie breaks more than sixty percent of the vote and Cuccinelli wins, it will be due to the blue collar, working class vote. The same votes that Nixon and Reagan built a national party on, and the vote that McCain, Romney, and Bush left behind.
To paraphrase “The Godfather,” to the detractors who criticize Christie for being too moderate and Cuccinelli for being too conservative; leave Cuccinelli and Christie alone, take the cannoli.