Election preview: Virginia & others

Parts of the United States go to the polls today (tomorrow in Australia) in a range of off-year elections. Most of the attention has gone to the governor’s race in Virginia, for reasons that will shortly become clear, but first a quick look at what else is happening.

New Jersey also has an election for governor, with incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy seeking a second term. Murphy won in 2017 with 56.0% of the vote (57.2% two-party), and while polls suggest he might fall short of that this time he still has a clear lead over Republican Jack Ciattarelli. Both houses of the state legislature are also up for election; Democrats hold substantial majorities in both and look unlikely to be troubled.

New Jersey has historically been a swing state – over the last 40 years, Republicans have actually held the governorship more than Democrats (24 years against 16). But its Republicans have usually been moderates, of the sort that the age of Trump has left politically homeless, so for the immediate future the state is solid Democrat territory. Joe Biden carried it last year with 58.1% of the two-party vote.

A number of large cities are holding municipal elections, but big cities these days are also mostly solid for the Democrats. Incumbent Democrat mayors look safe in Detroit, Minneapolis and New Orleans; retiring Democrats should be replaced by party colleagues in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh and Seattle (although there are some interesting intra-party battles). Only Miami looks like again opting for a Republican.

Virginia, by contrast, is a serious two-party contest. (It’s also just across the Potomac from Washington DC, which makes it an easy target for national media attention – a bit like a larger version of Eden-Monaro.) Governors cannot serve consecutive terms, so there is never an advantage for incumbency, and the parties have been evenly matched for a long time. In presidential politics, however, the Republicans have been falling behind: Democrats have carried the state on the last four occasions, with Biden taking 55.2% of the two-party vote.

But Virginians have shown a striking ability to offset state and presidential results. Since way back in 1977, every governor’s race bar one has gone against the party holding the White House at the time. That alone should caution against writing off the Republican candidate, investment banker Glenn Youngkin.

The single exception to the rule was in 2013, when, despite Barack Obama being president, Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly beat tea party Republican Ken Cuccinelli to become governor. And it’s McAuliffe, after four years out of the job, who is now running again as the Democratic nominee.

It’s a fascinating race. The polls have consistently showed it to be very tight, but McAuliffe maintained a slender lead up until the last week. It’s now much too close to call; FiveThirtyEight’s polling aggregate has Youngkin 0.6% ahead, although it has to be said that that’s heavily influenced by a single Fox News poll last week that gave him an eight point lead. It’s also not clear whether the problems that bedevilled American opinion polling last year have been (or can be) solved.

Youngkin’s task has been a difficult one: to market himself to swinging voters as a sane, very much non-Trump Republican, while at the same time not alienating the Trumpy Republican base whose votes he also needs. He seems to have done about as well as anyone could; Trump has stayed away but hasn’t actually attacked Youngkin, although it remains to be seen how much his continued fantasies about voter fraud might depress Republican turnout.

There is also a third candidate, Princess Blanding (not a real princess), who is running to the left of the Democrats on law and order issues. There’s no sign that she’s likely to get more than a couple of per cent, but if those votes are coming from McAuliffe then it could be enough to make the difference in a close race. Although it’s only one state, it’s inevitably being taken as a significant pointer to next year’s mid-term congressional elections, and a Republican win would be a big blow to Biden’s standing.

Virginians are also electing a lieutenant-governor and attorney-general, plus the lower house of the state legislature. The Democrats currently hold a ten-seat majority, 55-45, but the Republicans are expected to make gains.

Polls close at 10am tomorrow, eastern Australian time; postal votes are being processed early, so they will be disproportionately represented in the early count. Otherwise the state is very heterogeneous – the northern end, which is in the Washington suburbs, votes strongly Democrat, as does Richmond, while the more rural west is heavily Republican – so if you’re following along it’s very important to know where votes are coming from.

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