The Virginia and New Jersey Gubernatorial Races
October 22, 2021
What’s Left: The Virginia and New Jersey Tight Gubernatorial Races Reflect Possible Post-Trump Republicanism
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.
Being Right: Virginia and New Jersey voters need to make a change in November. Unfortunately, they probably won’t.
While Virginia and New Jersey are physically located over five hours apart, they do have some important elements in common. Beyond both being part of the original thirteen colonies and holding off-year gubernatorial races, both appear to have become reliably blue states in recent years (at least at the national level). This is in spite of both states previously possessing rather swingy electoral records. For instance, New Jersey was home to a surprisingly close presidential race as recently as 2004, and its citizens re-elected then-Governor Chris Christie by a wide margin in 2013. Likewise, Virginia has long been contested by both major parties. While their most recent Republican governor left office in 2014, statewide margins in the Old Dominion have consistently remained closer than that of my native Garden State.
In summary, both of these states should be winnable for the Republican Party under the right conditions. And political observers may have reason to believe that the conditions are right this year for the two states’ governor’s mansions to flip parties. President Joe Biden’s approval rating continues to languish in the mid-40s according to most pollsters, and his underwater statewide polling numbers in Virginia specifically are leaving many Democrats concerned about the upcoming election. While there has been considerably less hype generated by the numbers coming out of New Jersey, polling data suggesting that incumbent Governor Phil Murphy’s lead over Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli has shrunk by seven percentage points since August, and the fact that no Democratic governor has been re-elected since the 1970s, are encouraging for Republicans.
Based on these positive signs for the G.O.P., alongside the fact that the Republican nominees in both states are business-friendly, mainstream candidates, one would suspect that my view of the elections would be less pessimistic. However, my hopes that the Republican nominees prevail in these two off-year elections are reduced by the fact that their Democratic opponents are just not hated enough.
To illustrate my point, I would recommend analyzing the 2010 New Jersey gubernatorial race. After a less-than-successful first term as governor marred by a government shutdown, an unpopular attempt to raise tolls on the Garden State Parkway and a questionable relationship with a married union leader, former Senator and Goldman Sachs executive Jon Corzine was a particularly vulnerable candidate for re-election. Governor Phil Murphy, for all his many flaws, does not have the same weaknesses, and as a result, has amassed a fairly strong approval rating.
Given Governor Murphy’s tenure thus far, he has little reason to be the favorite for re-election. While putting in place highly restrictive COVID-19 policies for less vulnerable populations and small businesses, he enabled a crisis in New Jersey nursing homes with only marginally different policies from his friend and then-New York counterpart Andrew Cuomo. According to New Jersey’s official numbers, about 40 percent of those who died with COVID-19 in New Jersey, as of May 2021, were long-term care residents. Also during his tenure, New Jersey has consistently been ranked the most moved-from state in the country, which many attribute to its immense cost of living. Murphy has certainly done little to drag this cost down, instead opting to declare New Jersey a quasi-sanctuary state and inexplicably renaming the office of county freeholder for less-than-sound reasons. If his draconian COVID-19 requirements and exacerbation of New Jersey’s cost of living had received more scrutiny from the media, perhaps Murphy would not find himself seemingly destined for a win in November. As it stands, however, I am not inclined to predict an upset victory for moderate Republican Jack Ciattarelli (though I personally voted for him, and encourage my fellow New Jerseyans to do the same).
Though occurring under similar circumstances, Virginia’s gubernatorial election features a markedly different dynamic than that of New Jersey. Most notably, comments made by former Governor and current Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe have sparked fierce debate over red-meat, “culture war” issues. Conservative activists have bristled over McAuliffe’s insistence that parents not play a role in their children’s education. Generally speaking, the incorporation of social issues into blue-state electoral politics is bad news for Republicans. This time, however, it seems to have backfired for McAuliffe, a relatively milquetoast party insider whom many had previously predicted would return to the governorship comfortably.
A common view among the Virginians I spoke to prior to my writing this article is that Virginia is a state undergoing vast changes in a number of ways. In dealing with changes ranging from mass migration from other states and countries, to increased influence from Big Tech corporations like Amazon, to massive levels of social upheaval with respect to the state’s history, many Virginia voters merely desire steady, traditional leadership from the governor’s pulpit. As such, it is not a comfort to these voters to hear from their state’s gubernatorial frontrunner that they not even be allowed a say in something as crucial as their child’s education. Naturally, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, a pragmatic businessman with deep pockets, has seized this opportunity to repeatedly denounce his opponent in a series of advertisements and stump speeches.
While recent developments are certainly a glimmer of hope for Virginia Republicans, it is important to note that Youngkin still consistently trails McAuliffe by low single-digits. So, while this race is far more winnable than New Jersey’s, Terry McAuliffe remains the favorite due to favorable polling data, his past experience as governor and Virginia’s increasingly Democratic-leaning populace.
I recognize that it is important to the conservative cause that my fellow travelers in the movement remain “happy warriors,” and hold onto hope for future victories. However, I also believe that we must not over-inflate our expectations. If Republicans do lose these races, conservatives must keep their heads high anyway and proceed to the 2022 midterm elections in high spirits. Losses in two blue states, however disappointing they may be, ought not shake our determination.