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In Virginia, Republicans Win First Key Contest of the Biden Era

Businessman Glenn Youngkin is the first Republican elected governor of Virginia in a dozen years. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy appears to be barely holding on.

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Screen image from live cable news coverage as early results tilt toward a Youngkin victory in the Virginia governor's contest. (Source: CBSN)
Republicans have won the biggest electoral prize of 2021, winning solid victories in all the statewide elections in Virginia.

In the closely-watched race for governor, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin defeated former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, running on a playbook expected to be widely imitated by GOP candidates in next year’s midterms.

It appears Democrats avoided an arguably even greater loss in New Jersey. Gov. Phil Murphy was locked in an unexpectedly tight race with former state Rep. Jack Ciattarelli, but it looks like late-breaking mail votes will be just enough to eke out a narrow win for the incumbent.

Still, the results overall were devastating for Democrats in two states President Biden carried last year by double-digit margins. With Biden's approval ratings well underwater, Republicans are now gleeful about their prospects heading into next year's midterms.

"Tonight, the people of Virginia sent a message that will reverberate across the country going into 2022," said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who chairs the Republican Governors Association. "This is an enormous moment for Republicans and a political earthquake for D.C."


GOP Comeback in the Commonwealth

Republicans had not won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, but they swept all three contests on Tuesday. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring was unseated after two terms in office by GOP state Rep. Jason Miyares. In the contest for lieutenant governor, Republican Winsome Sears, a former state House delegate, defeated state Rep. Hala Ayala.

Republicans also erased Democrats' five-seat edge in the state House, taking control with a 51-49 majority, barring any recounts or changed results. The state Senate was not in play.

But Democrats have only a 21-19 Senate majority. Republicans will doubtless try to lure a party-switcher – perhaps state Sen. Chap Petersen, who has sided with the GOP on some key votes – or count on Sears to break tie votes.

Off-year elections in Virginia in 2017 and 2019 pointed to the success Democrats would enjoy more broadly at the federal level during Donald Trump’s presidency. Now the reverse appears to be the case for the GOP.

"Needless to say, tonight's results are consistent w/ a political environment in which Republicans would comfortably take back both the House and Senate in 2022," tweeted Dave Wasserman, a closely followed elections analyst with the Cook Political Report.

How Youngkin Won

Biden carried Virginia by 10 points last year, but McAuliffe was unable to re-create his narrow victory margin from 2013. (Virginia governors are only allowed to serve single, nonconsecutive terms.)

Youngkin ran a disciplined campaign. The former private equity executive was a first-time candidate who conveyed some of the same outsider businessman appeal that Trump brought to politics – while at the same time seeking to distance himself just enough from Trump to win over suburbanites.

"What Youngkin did in Virginia is give the Republican Party a blueprint on how to talk to suburban voters again," GOP consultant Scott Jennings said on CNN.

McAuliffe claimed that Youngkin was just another Trump acolyte, constantly invoking Trump’s name in attacking his opponent. But McAuliffe struggled to articulate a positive message for his own campaign. He wasn’t able to remind voters of his successes as governor – while also failing to articulate any kind of clear vision for a second term.

Youngkin, by contrast, found plenty to attack not only in McAuliffe’s record but Democratic governance in general. Virginia Democrats had passed a welter of liberal legislation during their two years controlling the whole of state government, including marijuana legalization, the elimination of the death penalty, a ban on no-knock warrants, tighter gun control and greater protection for abortion and LGBTQ rights. Neither McAuliffe nor state House Democrats seemed to have much interest in touting that record.

Youngkin did not hesitate to criticize them, however. “This is a moment for Virginians to push back on this left, liberal, progressive agenda,” he said during a campaign stop on Monday.

He sought to turn the race into a referendum on the Biden presidency, lambasting the president for his handling of the economy. He also pushed against vaccine and mask mandates, while highlighting his support of parents frustrated both by school closures and the teaching of racial history that they see as a form of anti-white indoctrination.

Democrats heard racial dog whistles in that argument, but polling showed that Youngkin led among parents of K-12 children. He cut into recent Democratic vote totals in places such as Virginia Beach, Manassas, and Loudoun and Stafford counties. At the same time, he managed to run up the score even further in already Republican rural areas and small towns around the commonwealth.

GOP's Near-Miss in New Jersey?

A couple of late-season polls showed the New Jersey race within the margin of error, but the incumbent Murphy ended up facing a much tighter contest than he bargained for.

No Democratic governor of the state has won re-election since the 1970s, but after winning by 14 points in 2017 – and coming on the heels of Biden’s 16-point win in the state last year – Murphy hoped to cruise to an easy win and break that cycle. In the end, the state’s Democratic proclivities probably saved him, but not by much.

Murphy’s background as a Goldman Sachs executive prevented the party’s left wing from fully embracing him, but he has not governed as a moderate. He instituted a tax on millionaires and new gun control regulations. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he held news conferences that were popular among New Jersey voters for their professional demeanor.

As the pandemic wore on, the GOP hoped to use sometimes controversial restrictions against him while avoiding a full embrace of Trump-like rhetoric or policies. Ciattarelli, his Republican opponent chastised him for the state’s high number of nursing home deaths.

Like Youngkin, Ciattarelli tried to steer a course between being right wing enough to appeal to Trump voters but far enough from the former president on issues such as abortion and immigration – and Trump himself – to attract moderates and independents. Ciattarelli mostly avoided the most heated social issues, however, to concentrate on an anti-tax message. He pledged to cut the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes and simplify and lower income taxes.

But the weight of the Democratic advantage in New Jersey looks to have carried Murphy across the finish line, if just barely. The GOP has a million fewer registered voters than their opponents, a gap that has only grown since Gov. Chris Christie’s time in office a few years ago. The number of registered Democrats exceeded independents for the first time in decades ahead of the 2020 elections.

What looked like a solidly blue state now looks like another bellwether for the GOP. If they can improve their showing this much in New Jersey, there aren't too many states left out of the party's reach.

Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for <i>Governing</i>. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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