The odd-year election returns rewarded mainstream politicians in ways that offer particular encouragement to the Republican Party and to American business. What's more, the results of a House race in Alabama that got little national attention may foreshadow a stronger role by business in the midterms next fall.
The most important victory on Tuesday went to New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, who garnered 60 percent of the vote in his Democratic-leaning state with a feisty blend of fiscal conservatism and pragmatism.
Christie, who enjoys strong business support, has criticized both the libertarian philosophy of Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and the recent government shutdown promoted by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
His landslide win, after the setbacks those potential rivals have suffered in recent days, represented a strong opening statement for his expected bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination—and could temper conservative criticism he has received for having praised President Barack Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy last year.
The flip side of his victory was the defeat in Virginia's gubernatorial contest of Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli. His hard-line conservatism, which drew major backing from the tea party and the religious right, was unable to attract a majority in a Southern state despite his attacks on a politically vulnerable President Obama and his troubled new health-care law.
(Read more: Christie wins big, tea party loses in Va. race)
The narrow victory by Terry McAuliffe, a moderate pro-business Democrat, was a landmark in Virginia's political evolution from bastion of Southern conservatism to a more diverse, metropolitan swing state. It was the first time in 36 years that the party out of power in the White House—in this case the Republicans—failed to harness discontent with the presidential incumbent and win the governorship.
What may have been the most promising victory for American business may have drawn the least attention of all. It came in the special primary election for an Alabama House seat, where mainstream conservative Bradley Byrne defeated tea party rival Dean Young.
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Byrne benefited from a last-minute infusion of financial support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests. For chamber strategists, who have struggled for a way to preserve enough influence over the Republican right to deter debt-limit brinkmanship and other tactics that could damage the economy, the victory points toward a model of primary season activism they may replicate on a broader scale in 2014 congressional elections.
—By CNBC's John Harwood. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnJHarwood