What We’re Watching In The Virginia And New Jersey Primaries

What We’re Watching In The Virginia And New Jersey PrimariesJune 7, 2021

On Tuesday, Virginia and New Jersey will hold their primaries. As the only two states to hold gubernatorial elections in the year after a presidential election, they will be important indicators of the electoral environment heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

Now, both Virginia and New Jersey voted for President Biden by double-digit margins in 2020, and both of their governors are Democrats. Nevertheless, Republicans could make inroads to overcome the blue lean of both states, especially in state legislative elections come November. Here’s what we’re watching and what you should know about these races.

Virginia

Let’s start with Virginia, which likely represents the GOP’s best shot at flipping a governorship in 2021 despite the fact that Republicans haven’t won a statewide race there since 2009. For one thing, Virginia isn’t as Democratic-leaning as New Jersey: Virginia is about 5 percentage points more Democratic than the country as a whole, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, compared with New Jersey’s 12-point Democratic lean.1 Additionally, Virginia has an open-seat race because Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam can’t seek reelection due to the state’s unique term limit for governors: A governor may serve more than one term but not consecutively. As a result, election handicappers at The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all rate Virginia as more competitive than New Jersey.

But even though Northam can’t run again, the Democratic primary still has a strong whiff of incumbency thanks to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking his old job after winning the governorship in 2013. Both well-known and relatively popular as governor, McAuliffe has emerged as a front-runner as a result, and should he win another term as governor, he’d make history as only the second popularly elected governor in Virginia history to win two nonconsecutive terms.

McAuliffe is hardly running unopposed, though. With four other major candidates running against him, the primary field is crowded. And at this point, McAuliffe’s stiffest competition is from two candidates looking to make history as the first Black woman to win a governorship in the U.S. and the first woman, period, in Virginia’s history: former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan. Carroll Foy, for her part, has positioned herself to the left of McAuliffe and has worked to attract support from a dozen labor unions, the progressive Working Families Party, and environmentalist groups like Clean Virginia and the pro-Green New Deal Sunrise Movement. By comparison, McClellan’s background as a longtime legislator has made her less of an insurgent candidate, and she has more backing from sitting members of Virginia’s legislature as well as from the state’s wing of the abortion-rights group NARAL. Still, McClellan has taken up the progressive mantle by calling herself a “practical progressive” and is supported by the social-justice group New Virginia Majority. State Del. Lee Carter, who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, also falls into this progressive lane, but he hasn’t attracted as much support as Carroll Foy and McClellan in the polls. Then there’s Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax rounding out the competition. Once a rising star in the party, Fairfax had, at one point, stood a real chance of becoming Virginia’s second Black chief executive, but when allegations of rape surfaced in 2019, his political career took a serious hit.

However, given how racially and ideologically diverse the primary field is in a political party that is also diverse, the fact that McAuliffe is an older white man has meant there is a lot of talk about “electability,” or that McAuliffe is more likely to win because of his race and gender, a topic that dominated the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, too. As such, McAuliffe has highlighted his “big, bold” plans for education and a clean energy economy while also emphasizing his gubernatorial record of restoring the voting rights of more than 150,000 convicted felons, including many Black Virginians. And like Biden in 2020, McAuliffe has so far been successful in attracting outsize support from Black political leaders, including more endorsements from Black members of the state legislature. McAuliffe also was endorsed by The Washington Post, which some analyses suggest may boost support for candidates in vote-rich, heavily Democratic Northern Virginia.

Based on the numbers, McAuliffe seems to be the favorite, too. A poll from Roanoke College released on Friday found him leading the field with 49 percent; Carroll Foy was a distant second with 11 percent, and McClellan was third with 9 percent. This isn’t all that different from two April surveys that each put McAuliffe’s backing above 40 percent, and it appears his opposition has failed to consolidate behind one candidate. McAuliffe is also a prolific fundraiser, having raised $12.8 million as of May 27, which dwarfs the $4.7 million raised by Carroll Foy and the $2.7 million brought in by McClellan (Fairfax and Carter have raised negligible amounts in comparison). Of course, this fundraising haul has prompted McAuliffe’s opponents to accuse him of being in the hands of wealthy donors, especially as Virginia law doesn’t have any limits on the size of campaign contributions. But considering Carroll Foy has also benefited from big-dollar donors, it’s unclear how effectively these criticisms have landed.

Democrats will also pick their nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general on Tuesday. These races are highly contested as well and offer similar debates about race and ideology. The crowded lieutenant governor field might produce Virginia’s first statewide elected official who’s Muslim, Hispanic, Jewish or openly gay. Meanwhile, Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring is seeking a third term, but the white incumbent is trying to fend off a head-to-head challenge from a younger Black man, Del. Jay Jones, who has criticized Herring for not doing enough for civil rights. Herring looks favored, though, as the Roanoke College survey found him up 50 percent to 20 percent. There will also be many down-ballot primaries for both Democrats and Republicans, as all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are up for election this November, too.

One piece of the general election is already settled at this point, though: Multimillionaire finance executive Glenn Youngkin has already secured the GOP nomination for governor. Worried about a divisive candidate winning in a crowded primary, Republicans decided to use a convention to nominate their gubernatorial pick, and in May they chose Youngkin for the top of the ticket. Youngkin has used this head start to introduce himself to the wider Virginia electorate and has already loaned his campaign $12 million so far.

At this point, it’s too early to know how the general election will shape up in Virginia, but  Republicans are hoping to benefit from the state’s tendency to elect a governor from the party not in the White House. Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping that their nominee will do what McAuliffe pulled off in 2013, when he became the first candidate from the president’s party to win a Virginia gubernatorial contest in 40 years. And if Democrats in Virginia do win with a Democrat in the White House, this could signal a fundamental shift in the state’s politics, pointing to real difficulties for Virginia’s contemporary GOP in attracting a winning coalition.

New Jersey

While Virginia’s primary is all about the Democrats, it’s the Republicans we’ll be watching in New Jersey, as Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is running unopposed in his party’s primary. And like so much else in the GOP these days, much has focused on each candidate’s level of support for former President Donald Trump, offering a preview of what many Republican primaries will look like in 2022.

For most of the Republican primary, former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli has been seen as the clear favorite, and he remains the most likely candidate to win based on fundraising, endorsements and what New Jersey political observers are seeing. But Ciattarelli hasn’t always been the most enthusiastic Trump supporter: He vocally opposed Trump’s 2016 bid, but as Trump’s influence has grown in the party, Ciattarelli has become more supportive. Ciattarelli also finished second in the 2017 Republican primary for governor. That said, Trump lost New Jersey by 16 points in November, so Ciattarelli understandably has preferred to focus more on attacking Murphy than on talking about Trump. Ciattarelli’s main opponent, Hirsh Singh, has kept the former president in the spotlight, though, attracting attention as an enthusiastically pro-Trump candidate. (Singh, for instance, falsely maintains Trump won the election.) And although Singh finished a distant third behind Ciattarelli in the 2017 primary, he lost the party’s 2020 U.S. Senate nomination by 2 points, so it’s possible he’s more in step than Ciattarelli is with the current GOP in New Jersey. (Two other candidates are in the race, too: pastor Phil Rizzo, who is also very Trump-oriented but failed to make the lone debate, and Brian Levine, a former mayor of Franklin Township who has raised little money.) 

We have little polling to go on, but a Public Policy Polling survey in late May on behalf of the Democratic Governors Association — hardly a neutral observer — raised eyebrows when it found Ciattarelli ahead of Singh by only 29 percent to 23 percent, and Rizzo in third with 8 percent. Singh also promoted an internal survey in April that found him ahead of Ciattarelli by 2 points, 22 percent to 20 percent, although keep in mind that internal polls are notoriously suspect. But Ciattarelli is sufficiently worried that he recently ran an ad attacking Singh as a “fake MAGA candidate” and for being part of the “woke mob” in reference to Singh’s past comments criticizing police violence.

Nevertheless, Ciattarelli’s overwhelming edge in fundraising and endorsements suggests that it would be fairly surprising if he lost. Through May 25, Ciattarelli had raised about $6.9 million and has spent $5.9 million; Singh, meanwhile, has raised only about $550,000 and spent $509,000, and most of what he’s raised has come from a $418,000 loan to his campaign. Ciattarelli will also likely benefit from an important wrinkle in New Jersey elections: preferential placement on the primary ballot. Because Ciattarelli has been endorsed by all 21 Republican county organizations in New Jersey, he will receive a prime spot on Republican primary ballots all over the state, what’s known as the “county line” placement, and as a recent study suggests, this ballot placement may substantially help the endorsed candidate.

New Jersey doesn’t have any other statewide elections on the primary ballot, but like Virginia it also has state legislative elections, as all 40 seats in the state Senate and all 80 seats in the General Assembly are up in November. And looking ahead to the November gubernatorial contest, Ciattarelli will have an uphill battle to defeat Murphy should he win his party’s primary. Not only is New Jersey a pretty blue state, but Murphy scored a 58 percent approval rating in a March survey conducted by Stockton University. What’s more, Murphy led Ciattarelli by 11 points, 47 percent to 36 percent, in a May Change Research poll, the only general election survey we’ve seen so far.

In both Virginia and New Jersey, a lot will depend on the national environment and how Americans assess the job Biden is doing as president. At the same time, as relatively blue states, a Republican win in either race would be a bad sign for Democrats heading into 2022.

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