It’s Deja vu all over again.
Back in 2009, a new Democratic President experienced a brutal summer of economic stumbles and Congressional gridlock. By November, his party lost gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, two states he’d won the previous year. Such a tough stretch led many to wonder if he was destined to be a one-term President.
OK, 2021 isn’t exactly the same as 2009. After all, only Virginia’s gubernatorial race is expected to be close this time around. Nonetheless, Joe Biden’s first nine months bear a striking resemblance to Barack Obama’s, which suggests that another midterm “shellacking” may be on the horizon.
With that in mind, all eyes are on Virginia and the battle between Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe and Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin. I previously discussed the unique dynamic in this race, which pits a first-candidate in Youngkin against the former Governor McAuliffe (Virginia is the one state where you can’t serve consecutive terms as Governor, so McAuliffe had to wait four years to run again).
Polls indicate a tight race, with a recent Monmouth University survey finding the two nominees tied at 46% apiece. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average gives McAuliffe a slim 1.7% advantage.
Over the past few weeks, each campaign has found itself ensnared in their own controversy. McAuliffe, for instance, was repeatedly pummeled for saying during a Sept. 28th debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
That comment infuriated conservatives by simultaneously hitting a nerve on mask mandates as well as school curriculums. The GOP is hoping that the remark also alienates voters in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where Youngkin needs to eat into those massive margins Biden put up last November. After a few weeks of trying to put the statement behind him, McAuliffe finally released a TV ad aimed at addressing parental concerns.
Meanwhile, over at Youngkin headquarters, they’re dealing with the specter of Donald Trump and January 6th. After embracing Trump during the primary, Youngkin has sought to separate himself from the man who lost Virginia by 10 points less than a year ago. So when Steve Bannon hosted a rally in Richmond, featuring a call-in from Trump, Youngkin made sure to avoid it.
Nevertheless, the gathering garnered headlines when a flag flown at Trump’s January 6th rally was brought on stage for the Pledge of Allegiance. The bizarre ceremony reminded voters of the riot and its connection to the last Republican President. Youngkin’s need to placate Donald Trump and his supporters was exploited by former President Barack Obama in a blistering attack on the Republican nominee.
Obama’s appearance in Virginia underlines another key element in this race, as instead of holding his party’s leaders at arms length, McAuliffe is eagerly accepting their help. In addition to the 44th President, First Lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have also made campaign stops in the commonwealth.
President Biden hit the stump in Arlington on Tuesday, and despite some rough recent poll numbers in Virginia, it remains a hospitable battleground for Biden. After all, his 2020 coalition of college-educated whites and Black voters are both well-represented here.
At the same time, Virginia Democrats are attempting to hold their narrow 55-45 majority in the State House. If Youngkin wins, or even comes close, the Republicans may be able to flip the lower chamber.
NJ-Gov and FL-20
Over in the Garden State, the Governor’s race is not nearly as exciting, given that Republicans haven’t seriously contended in a gubernatorial contest here since Chris Christie’s post-Sandy rout in 2013.
A September Monmouth University poll found Democratic incumbent Governor Phil Murphy with a 51% to 38% lead over Republican Jack Ciattarelli among registered voters. An October Emerson College survey of likely voters, however, showed a tighter 50% to 44% race.
Throughout the summer and fall, Murphy’s campaign focused on painting Ciattarelli as a Trump-style extremist who attended a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally last November. Conversely, Ciattarelli hit Murphy over taxes and crime, along with a last-minute attack on Pres. Biden.
Any result shy of a solid victory for Gov. Murphy here would be a shock, and cause serious panic in the Biden White House.
Finally, there’s the multi-candidate Democratic primary to fill the open seat in Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which I broke down last week.
To see how all these contests shape out, make sure to join us at Decision Desk HQ as we cover Election Night 2021!