Results of the Off-Year Gubernatorial Races
November 12, 2021
What’s Left: Red Flags from First Major Elections of Biden’s Presidency
This past week marked the first major election since Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020. The results in two states that Biden won easily last year over Donald Trump, Virginia and New Jersey, paint a dire picture for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterms, which will decide control of the U.S. Congress, and with it, the future of Biden’s policy agenda.
The U.S. has been, and continues to be, a sharply polarized nation politically. There are no permanent governing majorities, and fortunes ebb and flow with the nature of the U.S. electorate. The Republican party, stung by defeat in 2016 and displeased with their opponents’ governing actions, is unified in their opposition, while the Democratic party struggles with internal divisions and growing voter frustration over their lack of immediate success.
For the first time in more than a decade, Virginia — a state that was comfortably Democratic in last year’s presidential election — has elected a Republican governor. A Republican political newcomer, Glenn Yongkin, delivered a stunning upset in the Virginia governor’s race over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy narrowly won reelection in his reliably blue state, with both elections sending a warning to Democrats that their grip on power in Washington may be in peril.
In Virginia, Youngkin relied on his background as a typical pro-business Republican to reassure moderates and independents, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia, that he is not an extremist. He also managed to use culture-war issues to keep pro-Trump Republicans in his corner; Youngkin nodded to Trump’s base on race-conscious education at school (Critical Race Theory), mask mandates and election security, while also focusing on larger educational issues and the economy. Within this framework, he still managed to distance himself from the former president, not inviting him to help his campaign and never fully embracing the defining issue of Trumpism: the idea of the “stolen election.”
Youngkin prevailed in a task that has stumped Republicans before him: attracting Trump’s base while also appealing to suburban voters who were repelled by the former president’s divisive behavior. This sidestepping of Trump is a huge factor; in a state like Virginia, you can’t be anti-Trump and win a GOP nomination, and you can’t be too vocally pro-Trump and win a statewide election.
Youngkin’s victory is significant. It points to a viable path ahead for the GOP in swing areas, one that keeps the Trump base on board while regaining lost ground with independents and suburbanites. The national implications of Virginia’s elections are concerning for Democrats hoping to push Biden’s more progressive agenda. According to 13 News Now, Vice President Harris told Democratic voters in Norfolk, Va. prior to the election that Virginia is “…a bellwether for what happens in the rest of the country,” especially in regards to the Biden administration and its floundering Build Back Better Act. Looking at Youngkin’s successful run, Republicans have a powerful template for how to pitch candidates when the former president is not on the ballot.
In New Jersey’s much closer than expected gubernatorial race, Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli and incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy were locked in a virtual draw, even though registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million. Ciattarelli leveraged his position with voters through a surprisingly strong campaign on issues including taxes, as well as opposition to masks and vaccination mandates.
The setbacks for Democrats in heavily suburban Virginia and New Jersey hinted at a conservative-stoked backlash to the discussions around race and identity championed by the party, as Republicans relentlessly sought to turn schools into the next front in the country’s culture wars. If Republican candidates replicate the strategies shown in Virginia and New Jersey in 2022, they will have a good chance of winning enough of Democratic-held suburban congressional seats to gain back control of the House of Representatives. Democrats only have a narrow margin of control in the chamber right now, so it won’t take much of a shift to deliver victory for the Republicans.
This past Tuesday’s results showed the limitations of resistance politics when the object of resistance is out of power. It also shed light on the growing frustrations voters feel toward the Democratic Party failing to fulfill many of their biggest campaign promises, and spoke to the way that a lingering pandemic has transformed schools into some of the country’s most divisive political battlegrounds.
Moderate Democrats argued that the defeat was a sign that Congress must immediately pass the party’s infrastructure bill, regardless of what happens with the shrunken version of Biden’s social package. Progressives on the other hand blamed the failure of the party to push a broader agenda, including overturning the filibuster to pass liberal priorities like protecting the right to vote.
Congressional Democrats seemed to take heed to this warning as they quickly put the infrastructure vote into motion, passing the $1.2 trillion bill in the early hours of Saturday, according to U.S. News. Passage of the Build Back Better Act remains incomplete, but House Democrats managed to pass the rule establishing debate and setting up its final passage.
Progressive Democrats are trusting Biden to deliver on the Build Back Better Act, but this past week’s elections show they are really going to have to push fast and hard to get their priorities addressed in this administration. Republicans seem to have a very viable long-term strategy for keeping their voters engaged, even in off-year elections, with racist/fear-oriented cultural issues. The Democratic Party must figure out how to unify before the Republican party adopts similar, effective campaign strategies to those seen in Virginia and New Jersey, which would ultimately steer Biden’s policy agenda away from much-needed progressive change.
Being Right: Glenn Youngkin Does The Impossible, and Ciattarelli Nearly Triumphs
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.