Off-Year Governors Races Look Challenging for GOP

Stuart Rothenberg March 14, 2017 · 10:00 AM EDT

Gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey will get plenty of attention this year, in part because of Donald Trump’s victory and the developing divisions in the two major parties.

Observers will be looking for possible signs that Trump’s “new” Republican Party is changing the political arithmetic or that Democrats have found a road back to relevance. Any echoes of Trump, or the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton divide in the Democratic Party, will be heard.

The results are likely to be over-interpreted, as they usually are, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t offer any insights into the nation’s ever-changing political winds. 

Republican Chris Christie holds the governorship in the Garden State, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe holds Virginia’s top state office. Neither incumbent is eligible to seek re-election. If one party wins both contests in November, thereby “gaining” a governorship, there will be plenty of pontificating about the implications.

Looking only at state fundamentals, New Jersey is likely to swing back to the Democratic column.

Once a swing state, New Jersey is now reliably Democratic. A Republican can carry it statewide only when voters want a change and when short-term factors favor the GOP, as they did when Christine Todd Whitman won her first term as governor in 1993 and when Christie was first elected in 2009.

The last GOP presidential nominee to carry the state was George H.W. Bush in 1988. While Trump lost the national popular vote by a little over 2 points last year, he lost the Garden State by 14 points (55 percent to 41 percent), 547,000 votes out of 3.7 million cast.

There was no Trump surge in the state in 2016. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (in 2012) drew a bit more than 2.1 million votes, while Trump’s 1.6 million votes was not much more than Mitt Romney’s 1.48 million.

Democrats have large majorities in both the state Senate and the General Assembly.  The last Republican to win a U.S. Senate race was Clifford Case, when he was re-elected in 1972.

The presidential nominees didn’t compete much in the state in either 2012 or 2016, so it is possible that a heavy investment of time and money could change the state’s voting pattern slightly. But it’s extremely expensive to communicate in a state squeezed between the New York City and Philadelphia media markets, and that tends to favor the state’s majority party.

The combination of the state’s fundamentals, Christie’s controversies in office and Trump’s relatively weak appeal works against the GOP in the Garden State.

Of course, candidates and campaigns matter, and New Jersey politics being what they are, a lively contest is quite possible. But all things being equal, Democrats have a clear advantage in this year’s gubernatorial race.

The contest in the Commonwealth of Virginia is more complicated and competitive, and because of that, more interesting.

The Republican presidential nominee carried the state in ten consecutive elections, from 1968 to 2004, which reflected the state’s center-right fundamental bent. Republicans won more Senate races than did Democrats between 1978 and 2002, but Democrats have won the last four. 

That trend in Senate contests has carried over to presidential elections. Clinton carried the state in 2016, as Barack Obama had twice. Her margin of 5.3 points (49.7 percent to 44.4 percent) was narrower than Obama’s 6.3-point win in 2008 but larger than his 3.9-point margin in 2012. 

The state tends to flip back and forth between the parties every couple of gubernatorial contests, a reflection of its fundamental competitiveness. Democrats have won three of the last four gubernatorial elections, losing only the 2009 race.  Of course, if voters want change, the Democrats, as the party of incumbent McAuliffe, are in trouble.

The GOP has a large 66-34 majority in the state’s House of Delegates but a razor-thin 21-19 majority in the Senate.

Virginia’s presidential-gubernatorial race dynamic adds to the mystery of 2017.

For nine consecutive cycles, from 1972 through 2008, the party that won the White House lost the following year’s election for governor of Virginia. 

That streak ended in 2013, when McAuliffe was elected the year after Obama was re-elected. Still, the relationship between the two outcomes either is a remarkable coincidence or says something much more about voters in a politically competitive state that is right next door to the nation’s capital.

Could it be that Virginia voters feel buyer’s remorse a year after a presidential election, or at least that the controversial acts of a new or re-elected president are used against his party in the next race for governor? Or is the relation between those two elections, one state and one federal, merely statistical and not at all causal?

Whatever the answer, Democrats in the commonwealth are sure to label the GOP the party of Trump in 2017, and that is not likely to be an asset in vote-rich and crucially important Northern Virginia.

To make matters worse for the GOP, the party seems headed for a nasty nomination contest, featuring a poster child for the establishment, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, and Prince William County Board chairman Corey Stewart, an uber-Trump candidate.

Of course, Democrats have their own split and are headed to their own primary, which adds to the uncertainty of the general election.

Looking only at fundamentals, Virginia looks very competitive. But the cloud of Donald Trump hanging over the state may well turn out dampening Republican prospects.

The June 13th primaries in Virginia and June 6th primaries in New Jersey will define the nature of the general elections. But events, involving the candidates and also developments in Washington, D.C., are likely to greatly impact the two parties’ prospects. And Donald Trump is likely to be a liability instead of an asset in both races.