Like Sherlock Holmes on a busy day, election watchers are always looking for clues to the future of American politics. That’s especially true in odd years after presidential elections.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states electing governors this year. Both recently held party primaries, and election watchers are looking at these races as test runs for 2018 when there will be 36 governorships on ballots nationwide. The results will be carefully studied by Republican and Democratic strategists, and their affiliated super PACs, as they fine-tune tactics for the 2018 mid-term elections.
While both states voted Democratic in last year’s presidential election—Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 14 points in New Jersey but only five points in Virginia—they each have a tradition of electing governors from both parties. Four of the last six gubernatorial races in New Jersey and three of the last six gubernatorial races in Virginia were won by Republicans.
Neither party has the benefit of running incumbents this year. Current governors Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey have reached their term limits.
Democrats across the nation are anxious to the point of desperation to win both races. They now have only 16 governorships to the Republicans’ 33. If the GOP holds this advantage, it will give the party decisive influence over redistricting of U.S. House and state legislative seats after the 2020 census.
The specter of Donald Trump has hovered over both primaries and will likely remain for each general election. Candidates on the left and right have invoked the president’s name to energize base turnout.
Garden State Warriors
New Jersey, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. Sandwiched between New York and Philadelphia, many Americans think of it as a suburb surrounded by smoke stacks and landfills. But New Jersey is an important state with beautiful scenery and hard-working people. It has given America resourceful talent, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Meryl Streep, Frank Sinatra, Toni Morrison, and Antonin Scalia. And, of course, Christie.
Governor Christie is completing his second term. After defeating Democratic governor Jon Corzine in 2009, he roared into office as a tough-talking conservative reformer and quickly earned rave reviews. Four years later, Christie won a landslide re-election and his presidential prospects were burning bright. Soon after, the fire went out.
There was the embarrassing bridge closure scandal that resulted in former Christie staffers going to prison. There was his failed campaign for president, his early exit from the race and his surprisingly tight embrace of Donald Trump—who made Christie head of his transition team only to remove him later. All the while, New Jersey’s credit rating was downgraded nine times.
Now, in his final months on the job, Christie’s popularity has fallen through the floor. One poll pegged his job approval at a dismal 25 percent. He’s become a millstone around the neck of the Republican nominated to succeed him, Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno.
Guadagno, 58, served as a local commissioner in Monmouth Beach and as sheriff of Monmouth County before she was twice elected lieutenant governor on Christie’s ticket. In that job, she’s had a wide-ranging portfolio, including economic development, administration of elections, tourism, the arts, and cultural programs. She’s also chaired the Red Tape Review Commission, which works to streamline bureaucracy.
During the GOP primary, rivals tried hard to tie Guadagno to Christie—offering a sneak peek of what’s to come in the general election.
Guadagno positions herself as “a military mom, former prosecutor, sheriff and the Garden State’s first female Lieutenant Governor.” A theme of her campaign is: “We can do better”—a slogan that is both Kennedyesque and a veiled swipe at Christie. In fact, Guadagno makes a point of explaining that she worked in the “elite United States Organized Crime Strike Force started by former U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy.”
Guadagno has promised to cut property taxes and to refrain from a re-election bid if she can’t get it done. She’s proposed a “circuit-breaker” plan to cap homeowner property taxes to 5 percent of household income.
Unlike Christie, who is pro-life, Guadagno is pro-choice. She also opposes Christie’s decision to pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a program aimed at cutting carbon emissions to fight climate change.
Strategically, Guadagno has a tough balancing act. While running on her accomplishments as Christie’s lieutenant governor, she also must separate herself from him. If this were gymnastics instead of politics, that move would have a degree of difficulty of at least a 9.
For these reasons, the favored candidate would seem to be Democrat Phil Murphy.
Murphy, 59, was a key player at Goldman Sachs for 23 years, where he accumulated vast wealth, some of which he has used to fund his campaign. Born in a working class Massachusetts family, he went to Harvard, where he was president of Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and then earned an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
After leaving Goldman, Murphy became a top fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, working with then-chairman Howard Dean. A munificent donor to charitable and political causes, Murphy was appointed by President Obama to be U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He then started a think tank called “New Start New Jersey” and an advocacy group titled “New Way New Jersey.” This positioned him for his gubernatorial run.
Murphy’s platform is standard fare for modern Democrats: Criminal justice reform, immigrant rights, removing barriers to voting, tax increases on the rich, LGBT rights, extending healthcare coverage, lowering college costs, women’s rights, environmental protection, affordable home ownership, battling addiction, and expanded gun restrictions.
Murphy also proposes creating a public bank, which he describes as “a commercial enterprise, owned by the taxpayers that would accept public revenues and use them to invest in New Jersey.” He argues, “Instead of investing $1.5 billion in foreign banks, a public bank will invest in New Jersey’s main streets—in our infrastructure, our communities, our students, and our small businesses.” Opponents have criticized the idea as a “Wall Street gimmick.” Only North Dakota now has a state-run bank.
A post-primary poll from Quinnipiac University has Murphy leading Guadagno by a daunting 29 points. Most handicappers rate this race as a likely Democratic win points. It’s easy to see why most handicappers rate the race as a likely Democratic win.
In the months ahead, expect Republicans to tie Murphy to the vanities of Wall Street corruption and paint him as a rich lefty who will hike taxes and spend the state dry. If Guadagno starts closing the gap, Democrats will surely light her up with attacks that link her to the most unpopular politicians in the state, Trump and Christie.
Armies of Virginia
When Virginia elects a governor, there’s always a sense that there are big shoes to fill—thanks to the distinguished roster of Americans who have held the job. Patrick Henry was the state’s first, and Thomas Jefferson was second. James Monroe came later.
In recent years, Virginia has evolved from the traditionalist Old Dominion—once the capital of the Confederacy—to a more liberal political amalgam led by the growing, vote-rich Washington, D.C. suburbs.
Between 1952 and 2004, Virginia voted Republican in 13 of 14 presidential elections. But in the next three elections, 2008 to 2016, it voted Democratic every time. It now has two Democratic U.S. senators plus a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general. Last year, it was the only southern state to go with Hillary Clinton.
Virginia is also the only state that prohibits governors from seeking consecutive terms. It has had an unusually good run of one-term chief executives from both parties. Three recent former governors were popular enough to win Senate seats. The current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is an affable national party bigwig with close ties to the Clintons. He’s reportedly mulling a 2020 presidential run.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by seven percentage points in Virginia, according to last year’s exit polling. Whites constitute two-thirds of the state’s electorate. Compared to New Jersey, Virginia has a bigger black vote (21 percent vs. 14 percent), but New Jersey has more Latinos and Asians (18 percent vs. 9 percent).
The general election match-up in Virginia pits Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam against Republican Ed Gillespie. Both are conventional politicians who beat back anti-establishment, red-meat populists for their parties’ nominations.
The Democratic primary was a preview of internal party battles around the country. Northam, the establishment pick, had to fend off a tough challenge from former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who represented the populist left and had the support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Despite Perriello’s determined effort, Northam beat him by 12 percentage points.
Northam, 59, is a former U.S. Army physician and pediatric neurologist. Elected to the state Senate in 2007, he called himself “conservative on fiscal issues and liberal on social issues.” In 2009, Republicans urged him to switch parties so their side could secure a state Senate majority. Ultimately, Northam decided to stay put and was elected lieutenant governor in 2013 on the Democratic ticket led by McAuliffe.
Northam is running as a doctor and veteran, not a politician. But one consequence of the primary was that Perriello yanked him further to the left than he probably wanted to go. Both Perriello and Northam found themselves fighting for liberal voters who favor gun restrictions, LGBT equality, abortion choice, and immigrant rights.
In the Democratic primary, Perriello hammered away at Trump’s policies. He even ran an ad standing in front of an ambulance being crushed to smithereens, explaining that “Republican leaders” are trying to crush affordable healthcare, and pledging to stop Trump’s efforts. Not to be outdone, Northam came back with a TV ad calling the president a “narcissistic maniac.”
Northam proposes a typical Democratic agenda: fair housing, environmental justice and women’s health programs. He promises to confront the crack epidemic and protect voting rights for racial minorities. He supports early childhood education, better teacher training, cutting college costs, protecting the Chesapeake Bay, renewable energy, and breaking the “school-to-prison pipeline.” He also promises criminal justice reform and complains that for too long Virginia has “treated white people by one set of standards and people of color by another.” He strongly opposes the GOP health care bill now in Congress.
To take on Northam, Republicans nominated Ed Gillespie, 55. From the time he got into the race, Gillespie was viewed as the GOP frontrunner. He had more political endorsements and more money than his primary rivals. But he won the primary by a razor-thin margin against hardline conservative Corey Stewart, who was Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in the state.
Stewart, who chairs Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors, ran as the champion of anti-establishment conservatism. He attacked Gillespie with an ad that used comedian Kathy Griffin’s image of Trump’s bloodied head. The spot rapped Gillespie for not opposing ‘unhinged’ liberal efforts to discredit Trump and called him an “anti-Trump K Street lobbyist.’’ Stewart also criticized Gillespie for not opposing immigration amnesty, late-term abortions, transgender bathrooms and for not speaking out against the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue in New Orleans.
Though Gillespie prevailed in the end, the outcome’s closeness—largely unexpected by pundits and GOP leaders—spoke volumes about the strength of grassroots conservatives and their deep-seated wariness of the Republican establishment. Gillespie is in many ways a model of establishment success.
He started off as an intern to a Democratic congressman from Florida. He then became a Republican and began his party career as a low-level worker bee. He climbed the ladder quickly: a top staffer for GOP House Majority Leader Dick Armey, counselor to President George W. Bush, top-shelf Washington lobbyist, and chairman of the Republican National Committee. In 2014, Gillespie mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Democratic Senator Mark Warner’s re-election, losing by less than one percentage point.
Campaigning now as a “conservative leader” for “all Virginians,” Gillespie is careful not to drift too far right, which likely hurt him in the GOP primary. Focused mostly on government reform and economic concerns, he rarely mentions divisive social issues.
Gillespie pledges to enact the state’s first income tax cut in 45 years—a plan that would trim individual tax rates by 10 percent across the board. He also has proposed a regulatory reform initiative to streamline state directives and speed up job creation.
To inoculate himself from attacks on his lobbying career, as well as from the fresh memory of the legal troubles faced by the state’s last Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, Gillespie promises “fairness, accountability, integrity, transparency and honesty.” He’s advocating ethics and lobbying reforms and vows to open up cabinet meetings and stop the personal use of campaign funds.
On June 13 more than 543,000 voters came out to vote in Virginia’s Democratic primary, while only 366,000 voted in the Republican tally—an ominous sign for GOP turnout prospects in November. A recent poll from the Washington Post/GMU Schar School, taken before the primary, showed Northam leading Gillespie by 11 percentage points. While most handicappers rate Democrat Northam as the early favorite, they still predict a hard-fought battle.
Between now and November, expect Northam to move to the center. Democrats will condemn Gillespie as a right-wing Washington insider and fat-cat corporate lobbyist. They will tie him to Trump in the more liberal parts of the state. Gillespie will run as a rational conservative reformer focused on state issues, keeping his distance from Trump. His campaign will push Northam to the left as much as possible and tie him to the faults of the McAuliffe administration.
With the primaries behind them, gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia now are working to unite their parties, replenish war chests, and recalibrate strategies for the general election.
Although Donald Trump’s name won’t be on the ballot, he will be in the news—constantly. Democrats see him as a political piñata and may try to turn each state’s election into a referendum on the president. Out-of-state campaign money, flowing into each state in abundance, will be motivated more by national than state issues, and that could have the effect of nationalizing both races, whether the individual candidates want that or not.
With Democrats maneuvering to make these races a referendum on Trump, Republicans face a tricky task in trying to energize Trump voters—1.8 million in Virginia and 1.6 million in New Jersey—without allowing the president to become the central issue.
In the end, how much can these two elections really tell us about the future of American politics? The answer is plenty—maybe.
While Democrats are favored to win both states, they have more to lose if they don’t. If Republicans win either state, it would have more national shock value than Democrats winning either. That’s because Democrats carried both states in the last presidential election.
If Republicans win Virginia, they would be turning a blue state red, which likely would be seen as a big deal. That would give them new confidence as they work to prevent what Democrats hope will be an anti-Trump ‘tsunami’ in the 2018 gubernatorial elections. Of course, if Democrats win both New Jersey and Virginia, that would allow them to brag that their tsunami was right on schedule, ready to crest at just the perfect time—in November of next year.
Ron Faucheux is a political analyst and author. He publishes LunchtimePolitics.com, a daily newsletter on polls, and runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan survey research firm.