Friedrich Merz can vividly imagine what would have happened in the event of a defeat. “If we had lost the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia with a bang,” says the CDU leader, “you would all probably have written: The Merz effect hit the ground running here!”

But the CDU won hands down. This loses the explosiveness of the question of whether despite or because of the federal chairman. In any case, it didn’t hurt that Merz appeared more often in the election campaign in his own homeland.

Country manager Hendrik Wüst thanks “very particularly” for that. Merz returns the favor to his top candidate with modesty: “It’s an election victory primarily by Hendrik Wüst.”

Objectively speaking, that’s probably not entirely true, despite the nine percentage point lead for the CDU. Wüst probably owes it above all to the catastrophic performance of the SPD and FDP that he can claim a “clear government mandate” for himself the day after.

Whether the order becomes a government is in the hands of the second big winner, the Greens. Wüst congratulates and makes indirect advances: “The greatest challenge of our time is the reconciliation of climate protection and industrialized countries.”

For the man who inherited his office from Armin Laschet, who lost the federal election just 200 days ago, a black-green alliance is the only realistic option for power.

However, it would also be the big prize. Because if the Union wants to govern again in three and a half years, then from today’s perspective it would be dependent on the Greens. So far, the color combination has only been used in reverse in Baden-Württemberg. Wüst would pave the way.

Which, of course, immediately raises the question of whether the Union should not nominate him as a candidate for chancellor itself in 2025.

Merz dodges: “I’m happy about everyone who wins elections. That strengthens the entire CDU.”

Wüst also avoids the trick questions: “The Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia always plays a role in Berlin, and he always has the people of his country in mind first.”

Negotiating in Düsseldorf while squinting at Berlin would be about the stupidest thing he could do to provide the North Rhine-Westphalian Greens with a good motive for a traffic light alliance with the election losers SPD and FDP.

Nevertheless, from now on the question of the line-up for 2025 is in the room. The CDU now has two young winners – Wüst is 46, Daniel Günther from Schleswig-Holstein 48 – and a federal chairman who will be approaching 70 in the election year.

In doing so, he represents the most loyal voters. In North Rhine-Westphalia, too, the CDU owes its victory largely to the retirees; Merz brushes aside the poor performance among younger people as “not new”. But as a gray panther light, a people’s party has little future.

Especially since panthers seem to be out anyway. Günther and Wüst scored as friendly, calm guys. This led to results well above the roughly 26 percent polled by the federal CDU.

Merz still takes the success as confirmation of his course in the opposition: “Since yesterday, the CDU has been back in first place.”

He explains that it is not so important that his personal sympathy values ​​are less positive. “It’s more important to me that the CDU achieves good election results.” Wüst can remember the sentence to be on the safe side – just in case in 2025.