What’s Left: The Virginia and New Jersey Tight Gubernatorial Races Reflect Possible Post-Trump Republicanism

Elli Ament, Contributing Writer

As the polling margin tightens between the leading Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia, Democrats are being forced to reckon with a recovering Republican party’s increasing strength, as well as their own lack of popularity with Biden’s recent approval rating drop. While both races in New Jersey and Virginia are showing a Democratic lead, the possible ramifications of a Republican win, especially in Virginia, loom as Nov. 2 approaches. The results of New Jersey and Virginia could pave the way for next year’s midterm elections, as well as how Democrats and Republicans approach their campaigns under a post-Trump Biden presidency.

Let’s start with New Jersey. A less close race than Virginia, Republican candidate and former State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli faces incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy. While Ciattarelli has made slight gains recently according to CBS, he is still facing one million more registered Democrats than Republicans in New Jersey, and a significant fundraising disadvantage. Nonetheless, Ciattarelli’s personal branding as a more moderate Republican in comparison to several of his pro-Trump primary challengers reflects a possible way for Republicans to gain ground in anti-Trump states.

Ciattarelli could also slightly benefit from possible lack of Democrat turnout. First Lady Biden and former President Obama’s planned high profile visits have raised questions about Democrat enthusiasm in the state. Murphy told CBS News, “We’ve got to get our team to turn out, and if our team turns up in size, I think that’ll be a good result for us.” In contrast, national Republicans have no planned visits to the state.  According to CBS News, Ciatarelli said, “I don’t need anybody else to help me win this election.” This could be a purposeful strategy due to the lack of popularity of the RNC in New Jersey that could be repeated in other states in next year’s midterm elections if it proves to be successful.

N.J. Spotlight News cites polls claiming that Murphy leads by between nine and fourteen points. Significant, yet still less than Biden’s sixteen point win in the state. Nevertheless, the lead suggests that New Jerseyans still take issue with his conflicting approach to policy. Despite Ciatterelli’s support for the vaccine, he is against mandates that would make it a requirement and ensure the safety of school children, falsely stating that masks hinder children’s development according to Inquirer. Moreover, Ciattarelli simultaneously criticizes taxes on the working-class and Murphy’s policies that have led to fully funding the state’s pension for the first time in 25 years, giving small businesses millions in COVID-19 aid, over $500 million of new aid to schools and raising the minimum wage. If Murphy wins, it will be the first time a Democratic governor has won re-election in New Jersey since 1977, and will give him the opportunity to continue and expand his policies that have guided New Jersey through the COVID-19 crisis into what he calls “sunrise in New Jersey.”

Meanwhile, in Virginia, former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe is having a much more difficult time regaining his seat, which he won previously in the 2013 election. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin is being posed as neck and neck with McAuliffe in a recent CBS/YouGov poll which also shows a stronger enthusiasm for Youngkin than McAuliffe. While Virginia has historically not been a good reflection of national politics, the closeness of the race will likely result in a larger reaction from the media and both parties, which could boost enthusiasm for a red wave in the next election if Youngkin wins.

The race is reflective of similar issues as the New Jersey election: COVID-19 vaccine mandates, education, abortion and the economy. However, unlike Ciattarelli, Youngkin is being commended for his ability to unite both pro and anti-Trump Republicans under one candidate. According to NBC News, this approach is being viewed by Republicans as uniting, and by Democrats as duplicitous. At the end of the day, while Youngkin may be able to unite both sides of Virginia’s GOP, he is able to do so by staying true to some of Trump’s divisive and harmful policies.

Virginia’s race is also facing a stronger headwind from Washington D.C. McAuliffe has remarked on Congress’s divisiveness as bleeding into the election and according to Politico, Youngkin is benefitting from the Democrats’ unpopularity in D.C. Likewise, the results of the Virginia race could have long-lasting impacts on Washington D.C. If McAuliffe loses, it could put Biden’s administration in peril over their impacts on important state elections, as well as perhaps putting them under fire for the lack of political muscle demonstrated right next door. Moreover, Youngkin’s degree of success could demonstrate a possible playbook for Republicans in future elections. To go through every possibility is impossible, but it is undeniable that Virginia’s race is going to be important in left-right trends of both parties in the coming years.

Post-Trump Republicanism is in flux and will be strongly affected by the outcomes of both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. The Republican party needs to decide whether it is going to modernize and shift left or stick to the new brand of Trump-Republicanism. Both Ciattarelli’s and Youngkin’s appeal to moderates show a need to abandon the alt-right divisive policies of the former president. The results of both elections will be a bellwether to the future of the Republican party and whether it will choose to move past Trump or look back to its violent, divisive and ignorant former leader.