The New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races used to hold a unique place in American politics: Along with the New York City mayoral race, they’re the only major elections held in an off year after a presidential election. Thus, they can be an early litmus test for how things are going in the White House.
Take 1993, for example, one year after Bill Clinton was elected. In New Jersey, incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Florio — who’d won by 24 points in 1989 — lost to Republican Christine Todd Whitman. Over in New York, incumbent Mayor David Dinkins lost to Rudy Guiliani, the first Republican to win the office since ur-RINO John Lindsay in 1965.
The biggest upset, however, was in Virginia, where Democrat Mary Sue Terry — once up in the polls by 29 points, according to The New York Times — lost to Republican George Allen.
One year later, the Republican Revolution put the GOP in control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the 1950s and slammed the brakes on President Bill Clinton’s agenda.
Those days were supposed to be over.
New Jersey turned solidly blue years ago, despite Chris Christie’s time as governor. Virginia, once a swing state, has become reliably liberal as well. As for New York, the Democratic mayoral primary is pretty much the only election that matters, given the snowball’s chance any Republican has.
Given all of that, what’s happening in 2021 should perhaps worry Democrats more than what happened in 1993.
Democratic New York mayoral nominee Eric Adams has virtually no chance of losing in November, but it’s worth noting that the former cop and law and order champion is the most conservative candidate that could have come out of a field of Democrats littered with progressives and leftist technocrats.
In Virginia, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was supposed to be having an easy time of it against Republican Glenn Youngkin. He’s not; the polls are showing the two neck-and-neck, and McAuliffe’s numerous faux pas are catching up with him.
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But New Jersey — that was supposed to be the two-foot putt.
Incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was popular going into the election year, and President Joe Biden carried the state by 15 points last November. The first major survey of the race showed Murphy ahead of former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli by 26 points in June. “2021 Gov Race Is Currently Murphy’s to Lose” read a news release from the pollsters.
Murphy may not end up losing, but he’s certainly blown a big lead. A new Emerson College poll — conducted over the weekend among 600 likely voters with a margin of error of +/- 3.9 percentage points — showed him with only a 6-point advantage over Ciattarelli.
A deeper dive into the undecideds looked even worse for Murphy.
“Seven percent (7%) of voters are still undecided; among the undecided voters, 59% are leaning towards Ciattarelli and 41% are leaning towards Murphy,” an Emerson news release read. “When these voters are allocated, the race tightens to four points, with Murphy at 52% and Ciattarelli at 48%.”
The most pressing issue among those polled was taxes, with 51 percent saying it should be the first priority of the next governor. Jobs came in second at 16 percent.
Tellingly, 74 percent of Ciattarelli supporters said taxes should be the first priority — and 30 percent of Murphy voters did as well.
If you need a primer on why this is a bad augury for Murphy’s re-election chances, I’ll merely quote the first two paragraphs of a Sept. 30 editorial from the board of The Wall Street Journal:
“Like an addict who finally enters rehab, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has promised to go cold turkey on tax increases. This is not a parody from the Babylon Bee. The most taxing Governor this side of Illinois declared Tuesday in a campaign debate that ‘I pledge to not raise taxes’ in a second term.
“This conversion on the road back to Trenton was such a shock that the debate moderator literally thought she’d misheard. ‘Yes, you will raise taxes?’ replied ABC’s Sade Baderinwa after Mr. Murphy’s remark. He repeated the no-new-taxes pledge.”
Addicts relapse, however, which the Journal’s editorial board predicted Murphy would do. I concur; the Democrat’s budgetary largesse is such that his state’s spending has ballooned from $37 billion when he took office to $45 billion in 2021.
Not that the spending has made living there more palatable, as the Journal pointed out: “The 2020 National Migration Study ranked New Jersey the top state for net departures. Respondents ranked taxes and cost of living as their top concern.”
Murphy hasn’t been helped by a campaign that has missed the mark in so many ways — in particular a bad-viral ad that tried to convince voters that Ciattarelli wanted to ban swearing.
Granted, profanity is as cherished a Garden State institution as Bruce Springsteen and a Taylor ham-and-egg sandwich for breakfast. As a native and proud New Jerseyan, I concede I like my asterisked words. I don’t like them this much, however:
WARNING: The following video contains graphic language that some viewers will find offensive.
Jack Ciattarelli is so out of touch with New Jersey, he supported a ban on cursing in his town. Here’s what some New Jerseyans had to say about that.
— NJ Dems (@NJDSC) October 11, 2021
As much as we love “The Sopranos,” I don’t know any of us who would be swayed to open up our wallets for the taxman by a parade of random people dropping f-bombs in an ill-conceived campaign spot.
The problems facing the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey are markedly different than in Virginia. There, McAuliffe is battling revolts against radical school curricula and a slate of gun control bills signed by current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
The two Democrats have one problem in common, however: Biden, whose poll numbers continue to slip.
To the extent that both New Jersey and Virginia were thought to be predictably blue, the first real referendum on the Biden presidency was supposed to come in 2022. The fact that we’re even talking about these races — or considering the implications of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, for that matter — should be giving Democrats nightmares.
Again, look at the polling data from New Jersey. Taxes in the state were just as onerous when Murphy had a 26-point lead. His fortunes have dwindled as 2021 has progressed.
In August, a Monmouth University poll had Murphy up by 16 points. In September, Monmouth had him up by 13.
Now, Emerson has him up 6. Correlation isn’t causality, but the fact that this tracks loosely with Biden’s tanking popularity probably isn’t a coincidence. (McAuliffe certainly doesn’t think it is, saying the “unpopular” president is creating “headwinds” in Virginia’s gubernatorial election.)
Moral victories are overrated and conservatives shouldn’t settle for them in New Jersey or Virginia. However, if you had told the Republican wonks and election nerds as they watched Biden take the oath of office in January that the GOP would have a fighting chance in either state come November, you’d have been dismissed as crazy.
Not only is the right playing with house money in races we never expected to win, but we’re also getting an early sign that 2022 could look a lot better for Republicans than we could have even dreamed.
If it takes Democrats in New Jersey this much effort to sink the two-foot putt and get Murphy re-elected, just imagine what they’re going to have to go through in their swing House districts next November.