Carson’s Commentary: GOP gubernatorial candidates gaining in two blue states

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks during a campaign rally in Lynchburg, Va., Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021. McAuliffe faces Republican Glenn Youngkin in the November election. Photo by Steve Helber/AP Photo

With as much of a rollercoaster as the Joe Biden presidency has been so far, it’s hard to believe that next week marks an entire year since he was elected last November. 

The 2021 Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 2, will not have the same direct implications on federal politics as 2020’s, but it should not be overlooked. The states of New Jersey and Virginia — which both went to Biden by double-digit margins — will vote for governor on Tuesday. 

I will discuss the Garden State, New Jersey, first. On the heels of a strong showing by Hillary Clinton in 2016, incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) was first elected with 56% of the vote in 2017. In deep-blue New Jersey, Murphy has enjoyed relatively high approval ratings during his tenure. However, he faces two main criticisms that may hurt his chances among centrists: minimum wage and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In February 2019, Murphy signed a bill to gradually raise New Jersey’s minimum wage from $8.85 to $15 per hour by 2024. Similar to the bill signed by Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont just three months later, the steady move toward $15 per hour has crushed small businesses during the pandemic, especially in the southern and western parts of Murphy’s state. 

Even in their struggles to keep up with rising wages, many New Jersey business owners will tell you that Murphy’s COVID-19 restrictions were even more detrimental. Last December, a article detailed the closing of 67 popular restaurants across the state. The article was complete with heartfelt, pre-closing announcements from restaurant owners angry with Murphy’s restrictions.  

In many ways, Murphy’s handling of the pandemic paralleled his northern neighbor, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). With this approach came the crowding of COVID-positive patients in New Jersey nursing homes. At a time when nobody knew anything about the virus, Murphy’s actions could be somewhat forgiven, but they certainly have not aged well

Moderates’ outrage over these issues has given Murphy’s opponent, former Republican state legislator Jack Ciattarelli, a solid platform to run on. Earlier this month, Ciattarelli said New Jersey had the “worst business climate in the nation” due to its high taxes, COVID-19 restrictions and rising minimum wage. 

Polls show that Ciattarelli has closed the gap immensely in this race. Back in June, a Rutgers-Eagleton poll measured Murphy support at 52%, compared to just 26% for Ciattarelli — a 2-to-1 margin. But last week’s Emerson poll indicated Ciattarelli had cut his deficit to just 6% by focusing on these issues. 

The Emerson poll suggests that New Jersey’s moderates and conservatives are energized approaching this election, while its liberals are not. After all, the NJ Dems have simply tried to paint Ciattarelli as a carbon copy of former President Donald Trump, without considering that he won a GOP primary as the anti-Trump candidate. 

Ciattarelli could certainly capitalize on the unenthusiastic Democratic voters in this race. But even if he wins, both houses of the New Jersey Legislature (General Assembly and Senate) are expected to remain in Democratic hands, thus ensuring that a Ciattarelli governorship would be very unproductive. Despite the recent polls, I’ll bet that enough Garden State centrists foresee this inevitable gridlock, meaning Murphy wins by 8-12%. 

Now on to Virginia. Incumbent “Governor Blackface” Ralph Northam (D) is term-limited under Virginia’s constitution, which does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms. As such, Democrats nominated Northam’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, while Republicans nominated businessman and political newcomer Glenn Youngkin. 

Gov. Phil Murphy waves after casting his early vote at the Arts and Cultural Center in Long Branch, N.J., on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. New Jersey voters have already begun casting mail-in ballots and on Saturday began heading to the polls for early in-person voting for the first time ever. Murphy is facing a test as he seeks reelection against Republican Jack Ciattarelli. Photo by John Jones/AP Photo

Virginia’s electorate is quite comparable to New Jersey’s, but if anything, it is more polarized. The cluster of Washington, D.C. suburbs affectionately known as “NoVa” (Northern Virginia) is composed of the independent city of Alexandria, as well as Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, among others. Some of the country’s wealthiest and most reliably Democratic zip codes lie within these areas. 

Predictably, McAuliffe expects to draw most of his support from NoVa — President Biden has already campaigned for him there several times this year. The Richmond and Virginia Beach areas should also swing toward the former governor, but Youngkin looks poised to sweep the rest of the state. 

This is because the rural counties of southern and western Virginia overwhelmingly supported Trump last November, and Trump has endorsed Youngkin a whopping four times. Consequently, McAuliffe, Biden and former President Barack Obama have attempted to link Youngkin to Trumpism. 

But for his part, Youngkin has walked the line by positioning himself as a center-right Republican who neither favors nor opposes Trump. He’s kept quiet enough about his pro-life views to not alienate the NoVa demographic, and he’s vaguely ranted about “election integrity” just enough to appease MAGA World. He’s even distanced himself from Ground Zero of the critical race theory fight in Loudoun County — which is now making its way to Guilford, Connecticut

It’s a delicate balance that seems to be working for Youngkin so far. Despite Biden winning Virginia by 10.11% and Democrats claiming 7 of its 11 congressional districts in 2020, Youngkin has consistently polled within single digits of McAuliffe. 

Recent polls show the race essentially deadlocked, as any small edge McAuliffe may hold is well within the margin of error. This may be because McAuliffe faces the same voter enthusiasm issues as Murphy in New Jersey, but the former governor losing it with reporters over completely fair questions is not helping his cause. 

All things considered, I’m inclined to say that McAuliffe will pull out a 3-5% victory. I also expect the Virginia Senate to stay blue, though I would not be surprised if Republicans flip its House of Delegates. 

But of course, a Youngkin win and subsequent GOP takeover of Virginia is the more interesting outcome, as it would really force President Biden to show us the kind of leader he is. After campaigning so heavily for McAuliffe, might Biden become rattled by his newly-energized opposition right across the Potomac River? Or, can Biden seize the opportunity to wake up Democrats to follow through on his “Build Back Better” agenda ahead of next year’s high-stakes midterms? 

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