The New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections are now less than two years away. Most major election outlets rated this year’s general elections in January and February of 2019, and those two dates are also a little less than two years apart. Given the interesting developments that have occurred in both states, I feel it is appropriate to give my initial ratings for these two races. Democrats seek to hold both governorships.
Phil Murphy (D-NJ)
While New Jersey is decidedly a blue state, it’s not as blue as some of the states surrounding it. It voted for Hillary Clinton by 14 points and elected Democrat governor Phil Murphy by basically the same margin in 2017. Still, one would’ve expected then-candidate Murphy to do a little better given the blue tide that year and the fact New Jersey is a heavily suburban state.
Murphy’s tenure in office has been defined by intra-party battles with State Senate leader Steve Sweeney over how to handle issues like the state’s high debt and cost of living. Murphy wants to increase the state’s wealth tax, while Sweeney wants to cut government employee benefits and pensions. Murphy wants to fund a major offshore wind energy project to try to reduce the cost of electricity, while Sweeney believes the taxes required to make this happen would only increase the cost of living and hurt the electricity industry. It got to the point where Phil Murphy decided to withhold spending on certain public projects in and around Steve Sweeney’s state senate district, which includes the Gloucester area. While they feud in Trenton, few major things have been done to actually solve these problems, resulting in low approval ratings for the Governor. Because of this, there may be an opening for a Republican in the state. But remember, New Jersey re-elected scandal-plagued Senator Bob Menendez by 12 points in 2018. It’s also no stranger to shady politicians, so Murphy’s antics won’t cost him as much here as it may have in another state that isn’t Illinois.
The only Republican to declare so far is 2017 governor candidate Jack Ciattarelli, but Republicans have a semi-deep bench of candidates, including well-known State Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean and 2017 governor candidate Kim Guadagano.
Virginia has transformed from a purple state in 2014 to a lean blue state in 2016, and now to a haven for liberal Democrats and a place the GOP can’t seem to catch an electoral break no matter what. It’s easy to forget that the state only voted for Clinton by 5 points, even with her running mate, Tim Kaine, being popular there. Incumbent Democratic Governor Ralph Northam is term-limited.
Ralph Northam is a governor well-known for the wrong reasons. He became famous for a decades-old yearbook photo in which he appears to be wearing blackface next to someone else dressed up as a member of the KKK. Even worse, two other Democratic statewide officials, Attorney General Mark Herring and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax have scandals of their own: Herring also wore blackface, while Fairfax has been accused of raping two women. These scandals have diminished positive feelings about the Democratic establishment in Virginia, and do you want to know the two Democrats that have declared candidacy for the Governorship? Herring and Fairfax. If either one of them is the nominee, people wouldn’t exactly be excited to vote for them, and the results could be disastrous for state Democrats. It’s likely the Democrat candidate for Governor of Virginia will underperform the 2020 Democrat presidential candidate in the state margin-wise, especially if the presidential candidate wins Virginia by 4 points or more.
Another X factor is what party will hold the White House, less than 2 miles from Virginia’s borders. Virginia is a heavily suburban state, and many suburbs all across the nation and in Virginia have been trending left due to a dislike of Donald Trump. While it’s not impossible Republicans win the Virginia governorship if Trump is re-elected, he will definitely weigh the party down in this state, requiring the GOP to perhaps push harder than they are willing to push. If there’s a Democrat in the White House, then disdain for Trump decreases as he becomes less relevant and it may swing towards the Democrat in the White House, only adding to the problems of the Virginia Democrat while further widening the opening for Republicans.
Ever since Democrats took control of the State House, Ralph Northam has governed more like the Governor of Maryland than the Governor of Virginia, a state that still has a good deal of conservative Southerners. With traditional Democrat goals on his agenda, like gun control, it’s clear he outrages rural, southern Virginia, as several thousands of people protested a package of gun control bills he supports outside the Virginia State House on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Given the downside for Democrats in the state, and the unknown variables like the occupant of the White House and both party’s nominees, a Toss-Up rating is the most reasonable conclusion. Potential Republican candidates include Congressman Denver Riggleman and former Congressowman Barbara Comstock.