As the first major races after a presidential election, these two contests have recently developed a bit of a contrarian streak. Since 1989, with only a single exception, these states have always chosen Governors of the opposite party from the newly elected or re-elected President.
With about seven weeks until Election Day, let’s take a look at how these contests have developed so far.
Thanks to the commonwealth’s Constitution, no incumbent Governor can run for a second straight term. So Terry McAuliffe, who served as Virginia’s Governor from 2014 to 2018, had to wait until this year to seek his return.
A proud political animal, McAuliffe rose to power in the 1990s as a fundraiser and friend to Bill and Hillary Clinton. After a stint as DNC Chair from 2001 to 2005, and as a co-chair of Hillary’s unsuccessful 2008 campaign, McAuliffe decided to throw his own hat into the ring in Virginia. After falling short in the 2009 primary, he finally won the job on his second try in 2013 (becoming the exception mentioned above).
This time around, McAuliffe is up against Republican nominee and businessman Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin won the nomination not through a traditional primary, but rather via a convention-like system. Around 30,000 registered Republicans cast ranked-choice ballots at various sites around Virginia. Through this method, Youngkin won the nod on the sixth ballot.
Since the GOP nominee is a first-time candidate, McAuliffe initially focused his efforts on defining Youngkin to the Virginia electorate. As part of that initiative, McAuliffe used TV ads to highlight the pro-Trump statements Youngkin made during the primary.
Over the past few weeks, though, McAuliffe has shifted to hitting Youngkin on his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates. This appears to be a reaction to Gavin Newsom’s success in making COVID preventive measures the central issue of the California recall. McAuliffe is also following Newsom’s lead in portraying their opponent as extremists in line with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
On the other hand, Youngkin is hammering McAuliffe as soft on crime and tough on police officers. He’s released a series of TV commercials featuring Virginia sheriffs asserting that “Virginia won’t be safe” with McAuliffe back as Governor.
The result is a campaign strikingly similar to the 2020 presidential election, where the Democratic nominee blasts his opponent as irresponsible on COVID while the Republican counters that his adversary is against law enforcement.
Polling shows that McAuliffe’s held a small but steady lead since the summer, while Cook and Sabato each rate the race as “Lean Dem”. Given Virginia’s blue trend, it went from a five-point Clinton win to a ten-point Biden victory, this should be McAuliffe’s race to lose.
Joe Biden already stumped for McAuliffe in July, while Kamala Harris stopped by a fundraiser earlier this month, and I’d be shocked if they didn’t each make another trip. We could also see Barack Obama or even Hillary Clinton make an appearance for McAuliffe before November 2nd.
McAuliffe and Youngkin held their first debate on September 16th and have a second one set for September 28th.
Unlike the Virginia race, the New Jersey gubernatorial contest is not expected to be competitive, with Cook rating it “Solid Dem” and Sabato classifying it as “Likely Dem”. After all, the Garden State is considerably more Democratic, given that it hasn’t gone red since 1988 and Joe Biden won it by sixteen points last year.
Murphy’s campaign is taking a two-pronged approach of touting his leadership and second term priorities, while also tying Ciattarelli to Donald Trump. For instance, one Murphy ad infers a connection between Ciattarelli’s appearance at a November 28th ‘Stop the Steal’ rally in Bedminster and the January 6th insurrection in D.C.
At the same time, Ciattarelli is hitting Murphy on taxes, highlighting the Governor’s admission that “if you’re a one issue voter, and taxes are your issue, then New Jersey’s probably not your state.” Ciattarelli also launched a number of commercials painting Murphy as anti-woman because of a rape allegation aimed at one his top campaign workers.
So far the big name Democratic surrogates have yet to stop by New Jersey, although Murphy has said he’s open to visits from President Biden and Vice President Harris. Given that Biden stumped for Murphy back in 2017, and will want some credit for the Governor’s anticipated re-election, expect an event to be held before Election Day.
Murphy and Ciattarelli are scheduled for two debates, on September 28th and October 12th.