Democrats Win Both Races for Governor

The party unexpectedly won Virginia with a comfortable margin and flipped the seat now held by Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey. But the question remains: What does that mean for 2018?
by | November 7, 2017
Supporters celebrate news that Democrat Ralph Northam has won the gubernatorial election in Virginia.
Supporters celebrate news that Democrat Ralph Northam has won the gubernatorial election in Virginia. (AP/Cliff Owen)

This story is part of our 2017 elections coverage.

Democrats picked up the seat in New Jersey occupied by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. But their more important win on Tuesday came in Virginia, which they held onto by an unexpectedly comfortable margin.

When the year began, anything less than victory in both this year's races for governor would have felt like defeat for the Democrats. While they still face a big deficit in terms of overall control -- with just 16 governorships to the GOP's 33 (There is one independent governor.) -- Democrats are pleased by the prospect of momentum heading into 2018, when there are 36 races for governor.

Democrat Phil Murphy had been the favorite all year to win the New Jersey governor's race to replace term-limited Christie. His approval ratings, which are in the teens, were too low for Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Republican candidate, to overcome.

But Democrats had been nervous about holding Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe is term-limited. Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam raised more money and held a polling lead against Republican Ed Gillespie, but the race appeared to be tightening in its closing days.

"This was a very powerful repudiation of Donald Trump politics in Virginia," says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington. "It looks like Ralph Northam will win by a bigger margin than Hillary Clinton did a year ago. That happened largely on the basis of suburban voters rejecting the Trump presidency."

Indeed, Northam outperformed other recent Democratic candidates in the voter-rich suburbs of Washington, D.C. A Northam victory was expected to continue the era of McAuliffe, who spent his term vetoing bills passed by the GOP-controlled legislature. As it turns out, though, Democrats made unexpectedly deep gains in the state House as well. Democrats have picked up at least a dozen seats, cutting deeply into the GOP's 17-seat margin. State Senate seats were not on the ballot, but the GOP majority in that chamber was already narrow.

"The Democrats won or are ahead in every swing delegate race in the state and others that really weren't on the radar screen but are likely to flip," says Farnsworth.

In a sense, Virginia's vote just continued a political trend in the state. In 10 of the past 11 elections for governor, the state has voted against the president's party for governor. The only exception came in 2013, when McAuliffe won the year after Barack Obama was re-elected as president. Virginia, which didn't vote Democratic for president between 1968 and 2004, now has a blue tilt. It supported Obama twice, and Clinton carried Virginia last year by 5 percentage points.

But pundits are reading more into the Democrats' big night.

National forecasters predicted Tuesday that Northam's win, coupled with the strong performance by downballot Democrats, point to a potential wave for the party in 2018. The president's party nearly always loses seats in midterm elections, but President Donald Trump's unpopularity could lead to deeper losses for the GOP, if his approval ratings don't recover.

Gillespie was a prototypical "establishment" Republican  -- a former Capitol Hill aide, lobbyist and chair of both the state and national GOP. Gillespie narrowly eked out a win in this year's primary against Corey Stewart, who chairs the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and ran as a defender of the commonwealth's Confederate heritage. He adopted the Trumpian election model for the fall, running ads suggesting that he would would take a firm line against crime committed by immigrants.

"Gillespie's defeat in Virginia may now discourage Republican candidates elsewhere in US who were gearing up to follow Trump formula," presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted.

In New Jersey, Murphy pledged to increase spending on education, which could prove tricky in a state where taxes are already considered high. He's also likely to take up bills that have been passed by the New Jersey legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, but vetoed by Christie.

"There are going to be a few issues where the Democratic legislature has voted for something, and Chris Christie has vetoed it, that you'll see right away," says Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

In the most recent legislative session, Christie vetoed bills that would increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour, mandate paid family leave and limit the length of time convicts could be kept in solitary confinement. 

Christie also vetoed bills that sought to prevent the state from participating in Trump's ban on travel from certain majority-Muslim countries and to force Trump to release his personal income tax returns to win a spot on the 2020 ballot. Christie called the latter proposal an unconstitutional "form of therapy" for Democrats still reeling over Trump's 2016 victory.

This story is part of our 2017 elections coverage.