Last month, my expectations regarding the off-year gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey were published here in the Maroon-News. At the time, I sounded rather cautious and, admittedly, a tad pessimistic about the Republican Party’s prospects in these elections. With these elections now in the rearview mirror, however, it is clear that the political world, myself included, completely underestimated the level of energy brewing in the conservative movement at the grassroots level. Judging by what we’ve learned from the GOP’s showing this month, it seems that there are now plenty of reasons to be bullish about the odds of a “red wave” in next year’s midterms.
For starters, the results from Virginia alone should be incredibly encouraging for conservatives. After months of polling suggesting a narrow lead for Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, followed by a swing in favor of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the campaign’s final weeks (according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling aggregation), initial results from the New York Times suggest that Youngkin defeated McAuliffe by roughly a 51-49 percent margin. In addition to this win, Republicans Winsome Sears and Jason Miyares respectively swept the state’s Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General races, and Republican legislators regained control of the Virginia House of Delegates according to the Times’ vote tally.
Youngkin’s victory would not have been possible without strong performances in myriad regions of the commonwealth. According to results reported by the New York Times, Youngkin managed to secure similarly strong levels of support from rural, conservative counties to former President Donald Trump, while still making impressive gains in suburban areas that have recently appeared to be trending blue. These strengths were a winning combination for Youngkin, who declared victory Tuesday night in a state that voted for President Joe Biden by a double-digit margin.
While he appeared to come up short in the state’s final tally, New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli’s gains were similarly impressive. Ciattarelli flipped multiple counties won by Biden in 2020, including South Jersey’s Gloucester, Cumberland and Atlantic Counties, as well as North Jersey’s Morris County, according to the New York Times’ preliminary election results. Similar to Youngkin in Virginia, the New York Times’ unofficial results show that Ciattarelli’s candidacy was also bolstered by huge margins of victory in traditionally red counties, including Monmouth, Ocean and Sussex. Though he appears to have come within a mere three percentage points of ousting Governor Phil Murphy according to these preliminary results, Ciattarelli’s overperformance in many of the state’s counties ultimately did not outweigh his Democratic opponent’s wins in the state’s more urban areas. Amusingly, the greatest victim of Ciattarelli’s strong performance was not Murphy, but New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was ousted by a truck driver, Ed Durr, in a shocking David-versus-Goliath result. His win has since been certified by the New York Times, AP and CNN, though Sweeney has not yet conceded.
Nevertheless, as the American Spectator’s Dov Fischer pointed out in his article, “Really, the Polls Stole the New Jersey Gubernatorial Election,” Ciattarelli’s narrow loss is likely the result of months of inaccurate polling that continually reinforced the narrative of a comfortable Democratic win in New Jersey; in reality, however, the race could have easily been won by either candidate. For instance, a Monmouth University survey released in late October suggested that Murphy would win by an 11-point margin. Likewise, polls from Rutgers-Eagleton, Stockton University and Fairleigh Dickinson University forecasted a comfortable 8% or 9% margin for the incumbent Democrat in the final weeks of the campaign. As Fischer correctly argued in his aforementioned article, these polling discrepancies almost certainly cost the Ciattarelli campaign the precious fundraising dollars, media coverage and volunteers needed to turn out potential voters in such a close race. If the narrative surrounding New Jersey’s election had been similar to the one swirling around the Virginia race, I am confident in stating that Ciattarelli would have been the favorite to become the Garden State’s governor.
Putting the particularities of New Jersey’s political environment aside, Republicans should take this opportunity to learn from their successes in this month’s elections. Most importantly, they should realize that cultural issues no longer ought to be considered poisonous from an electoral perspective, even in relatively blue areas. Though he deftly avoided particularly polarizing issues (like the politics surrounding former President Trump) Governor-elect Youngkin certainly did not shy away from the controversial topics that voters most care about, including the politicization of the education system and the role of gender ideology and critical race theory within it. While Ciattarelli did not make these issues a cornerstone of his campaign in the same way that Youngkin did, he nevertheless butted heads with Governor Murphy when it came to New Jersey’s sex education curriculum. In one instance, the former assemblyman authored a scathing op-ed for NorthJersey.com entitled, “Take sex out of NJ classrooms: It’s time to get schools back to basics”.
I will not argue that it is prudent to inject every culture war issue into every statewide race, but some cultural disputes are clearly winners for conservatives, and it would be unwise to ignore the salience of these subjects. In fact, given the exit poll data reported by CNN, it appears that Youngkin may not have even won the governorship without placing emphasis on these issues. In other words, the GOP strategy of exclusively nominating bland “socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative” candidates in winnable blue state elections and only reserving cultural issues for noncompetitive ones may be somewhat poorly thought out. The winners of contemporary politics will not be candidates who ignore these cultural issues altogether, but candidates who wisely navigate them in order to galvanize their base without isolating others.
Using the 2021 results as a guide, the Republican Party may be poised to recreate the magic of the 1994 Republican Revolution and the 2010 Tea Party movement in next year’s midterms. However, this will only be able to happen if the GOP stokes their base to show up on Election Day by speaking to issues that voters care about and taking advantage of authentic grassroots energy. If the party continues to do so, they will see plenty more results like what we have seen in Virginia and New Jersey — results that election expert Dave Wasserman described as being consistent with Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress.