Democrats Win Governorships in New Jersey, Virginia

In the first major test of the Trump Administration’s coat tails in a regular election, Democrats have won convincing victories in two gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey.

In Virginia, centrist Democrat Ralph Northam, 58, beat reluctant Trumpist Republican Ed Gillespie, 56, by a convincing 54 to 45 percent margin. The Democratic victory in the hotly contested gubernatorial race is considered a bellwether contest for the 2018 by-election. In New Jersey,  former Democratic National Committee Chairman Phil Murphy, 60, defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, 58, picking up term-limited governor Chris Christie’s office.

Northam, a physician, is currently lieutenant governor under popular incumbent Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. Under Virginia law, governors are limited to one four-year term of office but may run again for non-consecutive terms of office. McAuliffe, who has indicated an interest in running for president in 2020, campaigned hard for his protegee Northam, putting his own popularity squarely behind his Lieutenant Governor’s campaign.

Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee member and Counselor to President George W. Bush, tried to avoid embracing the Trump agenda until fairly late in is campaign, correctly reading the tea leaves indicating the Republican president has not endeared himself to a majority of Virginian voters. Gillespie’s eroding position in the late polls forced him further to the right, embracing much of Trump’s rhetoric without explicitly embracing Trump himself. Trump did not campaign for Gillespie, who also rebuffed former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s offer to campaign for him. Vice President Mike Pence made two campaign appearances, the impact of which appeared negligible.

As a group, Democratic governors fare poorly on gubernatorial rankings according to an October 31, 2017 poll by Morning Consult, an independent polling organization. McAuliffe’s 52 percent approval rating places him at number 30 on the list, way behind New York governor Andrew Cuomo, the highest ranking Democratic governor on the list at number 18 with a 55 percent approval rating. In fact, McAuliffe comes in tied with California’s Jerry Brown and Washington’s Jay Inslee at number 31 with 48 percent approval ratings.

It should be noted that the Democratic governors on this list are sitting in mostly heavily Democratic states, but their approval rating – even among Democrats – appear to indicate rather soft support within their own states. This does not bode well for Democratic hopes for holding onto their present cadre of governorships in 2o2o.

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy,60, defeated Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, 58, picking up term-limited governor Chris Christie’s office. Unlike the Virginia race, the New Jersey contest was considered a foregone conclusion in a state where the Republican party has been deeply embarrassed by Christie’s political chicanery while in office. As a member of the Christie administration, Guadagno had to carry that baggage into the general election. Christie had the unique distinction of being the least liked governor in the nation, according to the Morning Consult poll which awards him an eighteen percent approval rating.

Murphy, a Clinton Democrat, beat long-time New Jersey State Representative John Wisniewski in the primaries, coming from a position of strength as a Wharton MBA and Goldman Sachs graduate who had served as a national chairman of the Democratic party’s fundraising campaign and as President Barack Obama’s Ambassador to Germany. Wisniewski, 55, has been in the New Jersey General Assembly since 1996, and was the chairman of Bernie Sanders’ New Jersey campaign committee.

While the win in New Jersey increases the number of Democratic governors in the nation, the victory in Virginia really doesn’t change anything since the incumbent was a Democrat.

The Virginia legislative contest, however, indicates a significant shift in voter preferences. The Democratic party picked up 14 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, with four more seats still undecided pending mandatory recounts, according to a story in today’s Washington Post.

If the Democrats pick up three of those four undecided seats, they will regain control of Virginia’s lower house by a one vote margin for the first time in this century. A Democratic victory in the recounts will reduce the number of state legislatures controlled by the Republican party from 32 to 31, weakening GOP’s chances for calling a constitutional convention, which requires the assent of 34 state legislatures.

Northam and Murphy’s victories reverses the trend in recent special elections. Ballotpedia reports that in seven recent special elections, five of which resulted from vacancies created by President Donald Tump’s cabinet appointments, none of the seats in question changed hands, with Republicans holding onto all six of their seats and Democrats holding onto their only open seat. Another indication of shifting voter loyalties, Democrats have picked up six state legislature seats in special elections while losing none to Republican candidates, according to a CNN report from June of 2017. 

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