That encourages Republicans, said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, particularly given McAuliffe's considerable financial advantage over Cuccinelli.
"Voters are very frustrated with the dysfunction of Washington, very frustrated with the incompetent rollout of Obamacare," Jindal said, "and they're taking out that frustration on the party that occupies the White House."
Many Republicans happily note that Christie performed well among groups that typically lean Democratic, carrying 57 percent of women and 51 percent of Hispanics. He also improved on his 2009 share among black voters, winning 21 percent, up 12 points. Cuccinelli, meanwhile, struggled in all three groups.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Christie showed that Republicans can reach outside the usual GOP core.
"You can be pro-life and get the women's vote and you can stand up against the unions and get the blue-collar vote and you can be the governor who reins in spending and get the votes of a cross-section of the electorate," he said.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said that bodes well for a Christie White House bid.
"You gotta say that this fella is on the right track if the Republican Party's not too stupid to pick him," Hatch said. "Hopefully, it means that the tea party people will realize that it's better to work within the Republican Party than to continually make it very difficult to elect Republicans."
However, tea party leaders -- who also watched a business-backed House candidate in Alabama win a primary runoff over a tea party conservative -- rejected the idea that Tuesday's results require a modified approach.
"Governor Christie ran against Obamacare and on the economy and jobs, and when Ken Cuccinelli started talking about those things, he took off," said Tea Party Express Chairwoman Amy Kremer, whose group helped elect conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
Kremer said the push from Cruz and others to defund the health-care law might not have been successful, "but without it," she said, "Obamacare wouldn't have the profile that it does right now."