For Democrats, the Win in New Jersey Was Worse Than the Loss in Virginia

18 Nov, 2021

IMPACT

Election Impact

November 2021

For Democrats, the Win in New Jersey Was Worse Than the Loss in Virginia

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

When is a win actually a loss? A couple of weeks ago in New Jersey for Democrats.

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial victory in Virginia should not have been a surprise, considering the polling leading up to Election Day showed a very close race, even with a slight Youngkin advantage. But the win was still significant in light of Joe Biden’s 10-point victory in Virginia just a year ago.

Democrats could try to explain away the loss in a number of ways. The party that wins the White House usually loses in Virginia the following year. They could blame former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe as a has-been politician who made a critical mistake with his debate comment about the role of parents in schools. Or they could pin it on local school board activism that rose to influence the top of the ballot.

But that doesn’t explain what happened in New Jersey.

Biden won the Garden State by 16 points in 2020, yet Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy struggled to win reelection in a race that didn’t receive anything close to the same time, money and attention as Virginia. Republican Jack Ciattarelli came within three points of defeating the governor, but most of the excuses in Virginia don’t apply to New Jersey.

Murphy didn’t have a big debate mistake or a specific scandal to blame for the close contest. And Ciattarelli’s campaign isn’t getting the same accolades that the Youngkin effort has received. That’s probably because Youngkin won and Ciattarelli lost, but the two Republicans performed similarly.

The main reason that Youngkin won and Ciattarelli lost is that New Jersey is a more Democratic state. Virginia went from a 10-point Biden win to a two-point Youngkin win — a swing of 12 points. New Jersey went from a 16-point Biden win to a four-point Murphy victory — a swing of 12 points.

That should set off alarm bells on the Democratic side because it means something bigger is going on. The shift in the political environment from 2020 to this year likely has more to do with Biden’s mediocre job rating, a reaction to the Democratic-controlled Congress and the overall direction of the country, rather than a local dynamic in Virginia.

A key indicator of a wave election is when candidates who shouldn’t be winning under normal circumstances find themselves in winnable races. That’s an apt description of what happened in New Jersey, and it portends a good-to-great set of midterm elections for the GOP next year.

Republicans need a net gain of just a single Senate seat to win a majority of that chamber and a net gain of just five seats to get back the House. Something as dramatic as a 12-point swing from the 2020 presidential results is more than enough for Republicans to win back Congress in 2022. For example, Biden won six of the eight states hosting initial Senate battleground races. But he won five of those six by two points or fewer. A downturn similar to Virginia and New Jersey gives Republicans plenty of options to gain the seat they need.

With 11 months to go before the midterm elections, Democrats have some time to bounce back. But if, indeed, the political environment is being driven by Biden’s political standing and the actions (or inaction) of the Democratic Congress, it will be challenging to turn things around quickly. Democrats desperately need a stronger economy and some policy victories to convince voters that the country is headed in the right direction under Democratic control.

It’s easy to say there’s a long way to go before next November, but even by this point, usually the trajectory of the election is in place. It’s a question of the magnitude or of how some individual races play out. Over the past 20 years, there hasn’t been an election cycle in which one party was projected to do well a year away from the election and then failed to live up to those expectations. That’s great news for Republicans.

What Democrats needed beyond victories in Virginia and New Jersey this year was some evidence that the typical midterm losses that plague the party in the White House are playing out differently. Instead, the recent results confirmed a typical midterm trend.

Ultimately, Republicans may not rack up huge margins in the House because they already picked off some of the low-hanging fruit when they unexpectedly gained 12 seats in 2020. And Republicans have chosen to shore up some of their previous gains through redistricting, which means creating some safer Democratic seats rather than takeover opportunities. The GOP gains in the Senate could be limited by the Democratic-lean of the states that make up the initial battleground.

But don’t be misguided by anything that happened in Virginia and New Jersey, because nearly everything from the recent results (except for former baseball manager Bobby Valentine’s loss in the Stamford, Connecticut, mayoral race) points to a great 2022 for Republicans.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is nathan@insideelections.com. 

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