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Why A Republican Might Win In Virginia’s Governor Race, And How New Jersey’s Race Could Get Tighter

California’s recall election has understandably dominated headlines, but there are two other gubernatorial elections this November that might tell us more about the national environment: Virginia and New Jersey.

To be sure, President Joe Biden carried both of these states by double-digit margins in 2020, and neither state has been terribly hospitable to Republicans since former President Trump won the 2016 election. But in recent weeks, Biden’s approval rating has taken a sizable hit as the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and the delta variant of COVID-19 has complicated his efforts to steer the country out of the pandemic. In fact, Biden’s approval rating has fallen to about its lowest point (about 46 percent), while his disapproval rating is up to 49 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker. The upshot is that Biden’s worsening ratings could improve the GOP’s chances of winning these gubernatorial races, particularly in Virginia, which is a more competitive state than New Jersey and doesn’t have an incumbent seeking reelection. Here is the state of play in these two elections a little less than two months before November:

Virginia

Virginia has looked like a blue state recently because Biden won the state by 10 percentage points and Democrats have won 13 consecutive statewide races dating back to 2012,1 but it’s really more of a purple state with a bluish hue. In 2017, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam won the state by 9 points in a Democratic-leaning political environment with an unpopular Republican president in office. But now with a somewhat unpopular Democrat in the White House, the pendulum could swing back enough to give Virginia Republicans a real chance at victory.

Virginia prohibits elected governors from seeking consecutive terms, meaning Northam can’t run again this year, but Democrats may have a slight incumbency advantage with nominee Terry McAuliffe: He previously won the governorship in 2013 when Barack Obama was president — breaking a streak dating back to 1977 whereby the party in the White House lost the Virginia governor’s race. However, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin has been able to use his personal wealth to stay even in the fundraising race with McAuliffe, who has a track record of raising huge sums. This means that the biggest challenge for Youngkin is not whether he can match McAuliffe in fundraising, but whether he can balance appealing to the GOP base without repelling suburban voters in the state’s metropolitan areas, which he’ll need to win statewide in November.


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And the polls at this point suggest the race is pretty close. While McAuliffe has led every nonpartisan survey so far, his edge among likely voters has ranged from very competitive to not so competitive (anywhere from 2 to 9 points) since early August. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much polling released since Biden’s approval rating dropped sharply in mid-to-late August, so it’s hard to know how much of a factor that might be, but we do have one high-quality poll from late August by Monmouth University that found McAuliffe ahead by just 5 points, 47 percent to 42 percent, among registered voters. Monmouth’s poll also showed how much turnout could matter in November, as its likely voter results had McAuliffe leading by 2 to 7 points. Our most recent poll, though, is an early-September survey conducted by WPA Intelligence on behalf of Youngkin’s campaign, and this survey found the race tied and Youngkin ahead by 2 points when progressive third-party candidate Princess Blanding was included as a choice. To be sure, internal polls should be taken with a grain of salt, but given Biden’s recent drop in approval, it wouldn’t be a shock if Youngkin were, in fact, running neck-and-neck with McAuliffe.

It’s unclear whether Biden’s drop in approval will stick, but another reason this race is a good proxy for the 2022 midterms is that the race has featured many of the same issues we’ve seen pop up lately in national politics. For instance, there have already been a number of conflicts over how best to combat the coronavirus, with McAuliffe backing vaccine and mask mandates and Youngkin opposed to such mandates even though he has said he wants people to get vaccinated and that those who want to wear masks should do so. Monmouth’s poll suggests, though, that most Virginians approve of the state requiring students, teachers and staff to wear masks at schools (67 percent), and a slim majority also backed vaccine mandates for children of all ages to attend school in person (52 percent), so this will be an early test of how much the different parties’ stances on handling the pandemic affects voters’ choices.

An illustration with a cut out of the top of the Capitol building and red and blue dots laid haphazhardly behind it. Some of the red dots have a Republican elephant symbol; some of the blue dots have a Democratic donkey in them.

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This election will also serve as an indication of how toxic Trump’s brand remains in Virginia. Trump garnered only about 44 percent of Virginia’s vote in both 2016 and 2020 — the lowest presidential vote shares for a Republican in the once-red state since 1968. Unsurprisingly, McAuliffe has repeatedly tried to connect Youngkin to the former president, including by attacking Youngkin over the Republican nominee’s calls for more voting restrictions following Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud, and by arguing that, like Trump, Youngkin isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously.

Meanwhile, Youngkin has tried to hone in on critical race theory — a decades-old academic concept that asserts the existence of systemic racism — which has become a favorite boogeyman of conservatives. As such, Youngkin has promised to ban the teaching of critical race theory from Virginia schools (despite little evidence it’s actually being taught), which he hopes will hurt Democrats’ support in key suburban communities like Loudoun County, where there have been high-profile anti-critical race theory protests at school board meetings, though the county denies teaching the theory. And a Roanoke College poll from early August suggests that Virginian voters might be concerned about critical race theory. The poll found that slightly more Virginian voters (47 percent) familiar with critical race theory had an unfavorable view of it than a favorable view (40 percent). Youngkin has also argued that McAuliffe did a poor job of handling crime as governor and that the Democratic nominee has the support of groups that want to defund the police amid a national environment where violent crime rose in 2020. And it seems as if McAuliffe may view this as a potential weakness, as he’s already run an ad featuring endorsements from law enforcement officials, who attacked Youngkin over proposed budget cuts that could reduce funding for public safety.

Ultimately, what happens in Virginia come November will be a test of just how blue the state is, with possible repercussions for the 2022 midterms. Should McAuliffe win despite Biden’s sliding approval rating, that could signal that the Old Dominion really is the Blue Dominion. But if Youngkin wins, that would be evidence that Virginia remains competitive enough that, under favorable conditions, Republicans can still win statewide.

New Jersey

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking a second term, but at this point, it seems that Murphy’s Republican opponent, former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, will need a lot more help from the national environment in order to defeat Murphy. New Jersey is a bluer state than Virginia — Biden won it by about 16 points in 2020 — and Murphy is a relatively popular incumbent.

Here, too, the most recent nonpartisan poll of the race comes from Monmouth University (in the school’s home state), which found Murphy ahead of Ciattarelli by 16 points among registered voters in mid-August. In its two different likely voter scenarios, Monmouth gave Murphy a lead of 11 or 19 points. Moreover, the survey also found 54 percent of voters approved of Murphy’s job performance compared with only 36 percent who disapproved. But this poll was conducted before Biden’s sharp downturn in approval, so it’s possible conditions may have shifted somewhat, although still probably not as much as in Virginia. 

The only other recent poll we’ve seen comes from Republican outfit Fabrizio, Lee & Associates, which found Murphy ahead only by 1 to 2 points in a survey on behalf of the conservative Club for Growth PAC. And while the same caveats about internal polls in Virginia apply here, the result is far afield from nonpartisan polling, suggesting further polling is needed to see if the race has changed. (For instance, a June poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University found Murphy up 15 points.) In fact, a better indication that this race is competitive will be whether Club for Growth spends on behalf of Ciattarelli in the coming weeks.

Four columns, one has cracks in it. There are blue and red dots laid over them.

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And Ciattarelli could use some outside financial support, too. We haven’t seen new fundraising numbers since before the June primary, but Murphy led Ciattarelli by nearly $2 million and he also had a massive edge in fundraising by outside groups, as Murphy’s allies at New Direction for New Jersey raised $13.6 million, far more than the nearly $250,000 raised by Ciattarelli’s ally Fix NJ Now. Murphy might have had an even bigger financial advantage if he could self-fund, but he’s accepted public financing for his campaign, which greatly limits personal spending. Still, Republicans are hoping to portray the wealthy former Goldman Sachs executive as an out-of-touch elite. Last month, for instance, the Republican Governors Association ran an ad criticizing Murphy for going on vacation at his Italian villa despite a surge in the delta variant of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Ciattarelli is a lifelong resident of the state, which he has tried to use to his advantage, arguing that he’s the “real” New Jerseyan, since Murphy grew up in Massachusetts. As such, Ciattarelli’s first general-election ad attacked Murphy for a 2019 comment in which the governor said that if “you’re a one-issue voter and the tax rate is your issue, we’re probably not your state,” which Ciattarelli argues is a sign Murphy is “too rich to care” about the state. Taxes could be an opening for Ciattarelli, too, as 32 percent of voters named property taxes as a key issue facing New Jersey in Monmouth’s poll. 

Yet the same Monmouth poll found 41 percent of voters were especially concerned about COVID-19 — their top issue in a list of more than 20 — and Murphy’s handling of the pandemic has received positive reviews. The poll found 61 percent of voters felt he had done a good job of dealing with the coronavirus, while only 28 percent said he’d done a bad job. Additionally, 46 percent of voters said they trusted Murphy more than Ciattarelli to handle the pandemic, compared with just 21 percent who preferred Ciattarelli on the issue (17 percent said they’d handle it equally well). Ciattarelli, for his part, has tried to dampen Murphy’s edge on handling COVID-19 by attacking the governor over nursing home deaths due to the disease.

But for Ciattarelli to have a real chance, he will have to win over a large chunk of the 37 percent of New Jerseyans who are independent voters, compared with the 39 percent who are Democrats and the 22 percent who are Republicans. And at this point, Murphy leads with independents, per Monmouth. Whether Ciattarelli will be able to make inroads with this group is unclear, too. The plurality of independent voters (37 percent) named COVID-19 as a top issue, which Murphy polls well on, and Ciattarelli, who once had a reputation as an old-school Republican in the state legislature, may alienate independent voters by doubling down on his party’s Trumpist base. For instance, Ciattarelli opposes Murphy’s mask mandate for children in schools and has falsely stated that masks hinder children’s development, although Monmouth’s poll found 67 percent of New Jersey voters support their state’s mask mandate.

Of the two gubernatorial elections this fall, New Jersey is definitely the undercard event. Yet, while New Jersey is a bluer state than Virginia, Murphy would be the first Democratic governor to win reelection since Brendan Byrne in 1977. To stop Murphy from pulling this off, Ciattarelli likely needs Biden’s standing to worsen and some of his attacks against Murphy to stick.


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Footnotes

  1. President and U.S. Senate in 2012; governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2013; U.S. Senate in 2014; president in 2016; governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2017; U.S. Senate in 2018; and president and U.S. Senate in 2020.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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