Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is a co-cost of CNN's new "Crossfire," which airs at 6:30 p.m. ET weekdays, and author of a new book, "Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America's Fate." A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.
(CNN) -- The very different outcomes for Republicans in Tuesday's two big gubernatorial elections, in Virginia and New Jersey, underscore the most important divide in the party today. But it's not the one everyone thinks.
The conventional reading of Chris Christie's sweeping victory and Ken Cuccinelli's loss Tuesday is that they bolster the "moderates" and undermine the so-called "extremists" within the party. Voters of all types -- 93% of Republicans, 66% of Independents, and 32% of Democrats -- cast their ballots for Christie, this view holds, because he demonstrated himself as "reasonable," worked with leaders on the other side of the aisle, and distanced himself from the far right of his party.
According to this view, Cuccinelli lost (although more narrowly than expected) by playing to the "fringe" of his party and associating himself with the tea party. His failure is supposed to hold a lesson for Republicans nationwide: Desist with the Obamacare fights, acquiesce to President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and quit nominating candidates who speak for the tea party.
It's easy to understand why this reading of Tuesday's results appeals to Democrats and to the media, who love the narrative that Republicans are being cannibalized by extremists within their ranks. It's even easy to understand why it appeals to some establishment Republicans in Washington who are comfortable not rocking the boat and who resent the influence of the party's grass roots.
It just doesn't happen to be true. The campaigns that ended Tuesday night didn't illustrate the moderate-conservative divide within the party so much as the divide between representatives of reform and those of a failed status quo, between the future and the past.
To understand why Cuccinelli lost and Christie won, think back to another election, one year ago. In the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the most memorable line of the night came from Obama, who tagged Romney with "the foreign policies of the 1980s ... the social policies of the 1950s, and the economic policies of the 1920s." What did Obama stand for? It was his one-word campaign slogan: "Forward." He cast the election as a choice between the past and the future.
As a conservative, of course, I thought that characterization was false. But because the Republican campaign focused much more on tearing down Obama than on building up the party's own positive ideas, it did stick.
The Cuccinelli campaign was a little like watching a rerun of the same movie. To voters who are fed up with "more of the same," he offered few new ideas to break out of the current mess. And without much of a positive vision for the future, it was easy for the Democrats to reprise the themes of 2012, painting him as backward-facing, almost anti-modernity.
Although Cuccinelli managed to grab the mantle of reform in the closing days of the campaign as the Obamacare disaster continued -- a move that narrowed what one poll found was a 15-point gap last week to just two points in the final vote -- it wasn't enough. For too many voters, he had come to represent an unacceptable past because he failed to offer ideas for a better future.
Christie's campaign, on the other hand, was positive, hopeful, and can-do. But it was not, as some have suggested, evidence that being moderate or conciliatory helps Republicans win elections. I doubt anyone who voted for Christie on Tuesday thought they were voting for business as usual in New Jersey, or for someone to be friends with the Democrats in Trenton.
As the governor said in his speech Tuesday night, "When we came to office four years ago, we ... said that people were tired of politics as usual; they wanted to get things done. And we promised we were going to go to Trenton and turn it upside down. And I think we've done just that." He was elected to knock heads, not to make nice.
And he did: Christie took on the teachers' unions, got property taxes under control, and reformed the state's pensions. He shook things up, and New Jerseyans just voted overwhelmingly to keep shaking. They're sick of the breakdown in their state government (as well as in Washington), and they want someone with practical ideas to fix it. As an aggressive reformer, Christie represents the future they want -- real change. If Cuccinelli had run on real change in Richmond, we might be having a very different conversation today.
In my new book "Breakout," I draw a distinction between "prisoners of the past" and "pioneers of the future." This, I think, is the greatest divide within the Republican party today -- the divide between those who think the party needs no new ideas, no positive message, and no fundamental change on the one hand, and those who want to be aggressive about breaking out to a better future on the other. It has less to do with whether people are "moderate" or "conservative" than with what they think political leadership requires.
We saw Tuesday night which side the voters are on.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Newt Gingrich.