Two important US states always elect their governors in the year following a presidential election. As a result, Virginia and New Jersey invariably give Americans a framework for understanding their new president and his party’s chances in the following year’s congressional midterm elections.
Currently, Virginia is led by a Democrat (Terry McAuliffe) and New Jersey by a Republican (Chris Christie). Neither is running for re-election, and in both states a Democrat is expected to win. If they do, the party will proclaim an anti-Republican wave in 2018. If the Democrats lose Virginia, however, the reckoning will exacerbate the party’s divisions over last year’s presidential campaign and embolden the GOP. And should Republicans come from behind in both races, expect a full-on progressive apocalypse and Donald Trump to host a rally in the White House Rose Garden.
The apocalypse scenario is unlikely: In New Jersey, the Democrats’ Phil Murphy is running well ahead of the Republican nominee, Kim Guadagno, who is Christie’s lieutenant-governor and appears to have inherited his scandal-ridden boss’s deep unpopularity. But down in Virginia, the Democrat, lieutenant-governor Ralph Northam, is ahead of the Republicans’ Ed Gillespie by less than the polls’ margins of error, and the race is being portrayed as a test of how the Democrats can regroup after 2016 and mount an effective charge against a Trump-style politician.
Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and registered lobbyist, has adopted a racially-charged tone straight out of Trump’s playbook. He has campaigned in defense of Confederate monuments, a touchstone issue in a state that was part of the breakaway South. Meanwhile, his ads accuse Northam of sympathizing with MS-13, the El Salvadoran criminal group, and a child pornographer. Independent critics have said the ads are false.
Some Democrats say that Northam has been far too slow to respond to these attacks and talk up his opponent’s ties to the unpopular Trump. Certainly, rather than launching a scorched-earth campaign against Trump, Northam has suggested in TV ads that he would seek middle ground. “If Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I’ll work with him,” one concludes.
Criticism set to gentle strings is not the message the party’s base is looking for. It’s also not the tone Northam took during his party’s primary. Then, facing a challenger perceived as both more progressive and more aggressive, Northam was happy to play the anti-Trump card, attacking the president as a “narcissistic maniac.” His reluctance to do it now has alienated activists, who see Northam as backtracking in the attempt to woo moderate Republican voters away from Gillespie. (However Northam’s one-time rival in the primary, Tom Perriello, has urged voters to unite behind Northam.)
Northam’s campaign argues that it is running the kind of middle-of-the-road, down-home campaigns that Virginia Democrats like Tim Kaine and Mark Warner—both now senators—used to win the governorship. More left-wing activists reply that Kaine’s brand of politics failed to win over working-class white voters, the core of Trump’s base, when he was Hillary Clinton’s running mate. Clinton won Virginia but only by 5%; with Trump’s low national approval ratings and growing swirl of Russia scandals, Democrats will want to see a more convincing win this year.
Should Northam lose—or just squeak through—the more aggressively anti-Trump faction in the Democrats will gain ammunition against those who want to win alienated suburbanites away from the GOP. (These two factions roughly correspond, respectively, to Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters in 2016.) A convincing Northam victory alongside a Murphy triumph in New Jersey, on the other hand, might reassure party leaders that Trump is a self-defeating phenomenon, prompting them to make fewer changes to the party.
For Republicans, meanwhile, the results will have the opposite of the effects you might expect. If their candidates are dragged down in Trump-dominated news cycles, it will embolden critics of the president to make the case that the party is better off without his divisive politics. If Gillespie pulls out a victory, on the other hand, expect hoarier members of the GOP establishment who’ve hitherto treated Trump with distaste to start waving Confederate flags and fretting about dangerous immigrants.