With shock waves from yesterday’s elections in Virginia and New Jersey still radiating around the political world, our team is already preparing for next year’s midterm campaign. This evening we have eleven changes to our Senate and Gubernatorial ratings that better reflect the current environmental challenges Democrats face going into next cycle.
Virginia and New Jersey – What do they say about the environment?
With President Biden’s national approval rating continuing to sink, Democrats are facing a national environment that is much more hostile than we initially presumed. We recognize that a lot could change on the political playingfield between now and next November, but our current ratings would not have held up if next year’s elections were held last night.
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin capped off a week of late-breaking momentum with the GOP’s first gubernatorial win in the Commonwealth since 2009. The GOP also picked up the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General offices while taking a majority in the House of Delegates.
Youngkin met his benchmarks in NOVA (Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William counties) and exceeded expectations in Virginia Beach City. The Governor-elect also performed well in Chesterfield, Montgomery, and Henrico counties. But it was not just reversion from college-educated whites that drove the victory. In Virginia’s rural 9th district, which backed Trump by 42 last year, Youngkin won by 50. This leads us to believe that Democrats still have extensive room to fall in rurals nationwide. Reduced Democratic turnout, which could be attributed to increased Republican enthusiasm, ultimately cost McAuliffe the election.
New Jersey’s still-uncalled result was even more mind-boggling than Virginia’s. As of this writing Governor Murphy leads Jack Ciattarelli 49.9-49.3%. His margin will grow as Democratic-leaning VBMs are counted across the state over the next few days, but Democrats cannot ignore the strong Republican swings.
The greatest shifts came out of Atlantic, Cumberland, and Gloucester counties. Murphy won all of them easily in 2017, but Ciattarelli currently leads by double-digits in each. Swings in Democratic-trending North Jersey were less pronounced, but Ciattarelli still came close in Biden-won Somerset, Bergen, and Burlington. Republican margins in Ocean, Monmouth, Hunterdon, and Morris were also impressive.
We expected a margin of eight points, in line with a Likely Democratic race. The red groundswell ended up making the result much closer than that. Even though Murphy seems on track to eke out second term and become the first Democratic Governor reelected in 44 years, his eventual margin will be very far below expectations.
- If President Biden’s approval rating continues to drop, the national environment could get even worse for Democrats.
- The President’s party typically performs poorly in midterm elections.
- Enthusiasm and messaging will continue to drive turnout.
- Midterms do not attract the same level of participation as Presidential years.
- Democratic struggles in VA and NJ lead one to wonder how the party will fare in redder swing states like Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin if last night’s parameters stay the same.
- Democrats probably still have room to fall in rural areas around the country, a problematic reality if “suburban reversion” manifests itself for the GOP next year.
- Even though Youngkin and Ciattarelli ran good campaigns, the national environment might be the most significant electoral stimulus to watch going forward.
- Weak recruitment, gaffes, and character flaws in key races could matter a lot less if polarization continues to increase.
- Races for Governor have traditionally been less polarized and more independent of the national environment than Senate races. It will be interesting to see if that phenomenon begins to fade away.
- Binding Youngkin and Ciattarelli to Trump did not work in either race, so it may be time to reevaluate the former President’s relevance in the Biden-era.
- Finally, as my good friend J. Miles Coleman always says: no state is permanently red or blue.
What does Tossup mean for us?
By moving races into the Tossup category we simply mean neither side has an ostensible advantage. Think of it like a coin flip. It does not mean that we are predicting a loss for the incumbent, nor a win for the challenger.
Out of an abundance of caution, we are expanding our Tossup field for next year’s Class III Senate map to better reflect the national environment. You can read our last Senate piece here.
- Arizona (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – Democratic Senator Mark Kelly outran Joe Biden by roughly two points in the Grand Canyon State last year. The former astronaut defeated interim Senator Martha McSally to win John McCain’s old seat. Both Arizona Senators are Democrats, but Kelly will likely face a spirited challenge next year in a state that was reliably Republican just a decade ago. Unless former Governor Doug Ducey reconsiders the race, Attorney General Mark Brnovich currently seems like the frontrunner on the GOP side.
- Georgia (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – Georgia’s rapid Democratic trends and swift diversification are undeniable, but they are no longer enough for us to consider Senator Raphael Warnock a favorite in his bid for a full term next year. If patterns that we saw last night in Virginia with white voters persist, they could disadvantage Democrats in what has possibly become the nation’s top swing state. The Peach State was critical to President Biden’s victory last November and gave Democrats Senate control after dual-runoffs wins earlier this year. Despite concerns about Republican frontrunner Herschel Walker’s quality as a candidate, Georgia likely has not shifted fast enough to put it out of reach for Republicans in a red wave.
- Colorado (Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic) – Colorado may be bluer than Virginia at the federal level, but similar voting dynamics could bring it into play under ideal Republican circumstances. Democratic Senator Michael Bennet had a closer-than-expected race in 2016 and could face a competitive reelection contest in 2022. Republican Eli Bremer, a veteran and Olympic athlete, is the two term Senator’s strongest opponent so far. Democrats are still heavily favored in the Centennial State, but we no longer feel that the race is wholly uncompetitive.
- Nevada (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – Nevada expert Alex Diaz once called the Silver State the Democratic version of Florida at the federal level. What did he mean? Democrats have a reliable record of winning races there, albeit by narrow margins. The state is rather inelastic and results have generally been good for Democrats over the last few cycles. In 2016, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto held Harry Reid’s seat in a close race against Congressman Joe Heck. Two years later the party flipped the open Governor’s mansion and unseated Republican Senator Dean Heller. Hillary Clinton and President Biden both won the state by a little over two points. Nevada may end up evading Republicans next year like Florida evaded Democrats in the party’s 2018 wave, but the possibility of a GOP win is now high enough to merit a rating change. Ex-Attorney General and Gubernatorial nominee Adam Laxalt is Senator Cortez Masto’s likely challenger. The top Republican recruit here would have been former Governor Brian Sandoval.
- Colorado (Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic) – Governor Jared Polis was easily elected in 2018 and remains a strong favorite for reelection going into next cycle. Nevertheless, for the same reason as the Senate race, we consider it prescient to leave the possibility of a competitive race open for speculation. Republican Heidi Ganahl, who was elected statewide as a Regent for the University of Colorado, seems to be the most prominent candidate in the race so far. Check out a map of her statewide victory here.
- Florida (Leans Republican to Likely Republican) – Bolstered by an impressive showing in Miami-Dade County last year, Trump won Florida by more than he did in 2016. Democrat Andrew Gillum narrowly lost to Ron DeSantis in the 2018 Gubernatorial race, a contest that coincided with Senator Bill Nelson’s loss to then-Governor Rick Scott. Both of those races occurred in an otherwise Democratic year. A fractured Democratic primary between Congressman Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, and State Senator Annette Taddeo is dominating Sunshine State politics going into next year. We have considered Governor DeSantis a reelection favorite for months, so it is hard to see how his position is anything but emboldened by the new environment.
- Maine (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – Maine is a blue state, but Republicans still have strong roots here. Look no further than Senator Susan Collins, a long-time incumbent who upset state House Speaker Sara Gideon in last year’s Senate race. Collins won by nine points as President Biden carried the state by about the same margin. Democrat Janet Mills flipped the open governorship in 2018. Prior to that the office was held by Republican Paul LePage, who won both his terms with a plurality of the vote in a state that has been welcoming of bids by third parties and independents. LePage is running to reclaim his old office next year. Ranked-Choice Voting does not apply to gubernatorial elections in Maine.
- Michigan (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – Of the three blue wall states contested in the 2020 Presidential election, Michigan broke for President Biden by the largest margin. Trump’s narrow 2016 victory in the Wolverine State may have been a fluke, but the state itself is certainly not out of reach for Republicans. In his second Senate bid last year, John James outran the former President and lost to Senator Gary Peters by just over a point. Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer won the open governorship in the 2018 blue wave after eight years of Republican control under Rick Snyder. Whitmer has been considered a strong incumbent, but her state could be in serious contention if next year’s environment continues to favor the GOP. The party field remains up in the air here. Former Detroit PD Chief James Craig currently seems like the top Republican in the race, but other more prominent candidates like ex-Attorney General Mike Cox and John James could run.
- Nevada (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – Based on the same reasoning we provided for the Senate change, the Gubernatorial election in Nevada is also expected to be anyone’s game. Governor Steve Sisolak beat Adam Laxalt in 2018 and faces another competitive race this year. Former Senator Dean Heller appears to be the GOP frontrunner ahead of next year’s election, but Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo is still in the mix. Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, the most recent Republican elected statewide, would be an ideal candidate.
- New Mexico (Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic) – Much like Colorado, New Mexico has become a reliably Democratic state at the federal level. Nonetheless, Republicans remain hopeful about their chances in the upcoming Gubernatorial contest in the Land of Enchantment. Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham won the open race in 2018, with Republican incumbent Susana Martinez term-limited. The GOP is confident in next year’s recruit, Mark Ronchetti, who performed much better than expected in last year’s Senate race against Ben Ray Lujan. Moreover, Lujan Grisham has faced a damaging sexual harassment scandal. With these circumstances in mind, she could be more vulnerable that most pundits assume. The Governor is still a reelection favorite in our book, but this race should be watched closely after the new year.
- Pennsylvania (Leans Democratic to Tossup) – The ever-swingy Keystone State is the final addition to our list. Though Pennsylvania Democrats have a solid track record in federal races, Pennsylvania has remained one of the nation’s marquee states for many years. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf is term-limited going into 2020 and the race to replace him is already crowded. Democrats have unified behind Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who performed very well in his near-five point 2020 reelection. The Republican field is currently more divided. Former Congressman and 2018 Senate nominee Lou Barletta is one candidate. Others include Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, and Charlie Gerow.