The premier election of 2017 could steel Democrats’ spines Tuesday night — or break their hearts.
A win in the tight, closely watched Virginia governor’s race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie would reassure the party that it can win big campaigns again and give it momentum heading into the 2018 midterms. But a defeat — especially after Northam led public polling throughout the campaign in a state President Donald Trump lost last year — would be a huge psychological blow to a Democratic Party still reeling from the 2016 presidential election. As an extra gut punch, a Gillespie win would likely put a whopping 27th state government under Republican control.
Democrats are overwhelmingly favored to take back the governorship in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie is wildly unpopular and has dragged down Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in her race against Democrat Phil Murphy.
The polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern in Virginia and 8 p.m. in New Jersey. Here are POLITICO’s five things to watch as Northam battles Gillespie and Murphy takes on Guadagno:
Northam’s home turf
Democrats and Republicans alike are pointing to the Hampton Roads region in southeastern Virginia as key to Northam’s advantage in public polls, which he holds on to despite a late surge by Gillespie. The Northam campaign has been working with outside groups to turn out African-American voters. Republicans, including a group led by former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, are spending $50,000 on literature and radio and digital ads aiming to discourage African-Americans from backing Northam. Hampton Roads makes up roughly 20 percent of the electorate.
Another potential advantage is Northam’s roots on the rural Eastern Shore, including his home county of Accomack, which traditionally leans Republican. Democrats think Northam will improve on his party’s performance in the county, and possibly even win it.
Gillespie’s southwestern strength
Rural areas have been moving toward the GOP for years. But even before Trump accelerated the trend, Gillespie’s shocking near win in a 2014 Senate campaign was a big warning sign for Democrats. Gillespie nearly beat Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, who owned southwestern Virginia in his previous elections, thanks to big wins in county after county.
Gillespie is practically certain to carry the region again in 2017. The question Republicans have is whether Gillespie’s establishment credentials and long history as a lobbyist will prevent him from reaching Trump’s heights. (Trump lost Virginia by 5 points last year.)
Gillespie’s late play in the southwest has been to highlight an ad made by Latino Victory Fund, a pro-Northam group that depicted a Gillespie supporter in a pickup truck chasing down immigrant children. The Gillespie campaign created its own 30-second spot saying Democrats “disdain” conservative voters, and it aired about 300 times in Southwest Virginia markets over the weekend, according to Advertising Analytics, as Gillespie tries to motivate people to vote against Northam on Tuesday.
Not going national in Northern Virginia
Both campaigns have largely refrained from nationalizing the Virginia governor’s race, even in vote-rich Northern Virginia, where the president is widely unpopular and Hillary Clinton crushed him in the 2016 election. After repeatedly calling Trump a “narcissistic maniac” during the Democratic primary, Northam played down his criticism of the president during the general. He aired ads linking Gillespie to Trump on education policy — but Northam also said he would work with Trump if it would benefit Virginia.
If Northam doesn’t hold on to his lead, expect progressive groups and other Democrats to question why the Democrat didn’t take a harder line against the president, given how badly Trump lost Northern Virginia in last year’s campaign.
Does Trump-style campaigning work in blue states like New Jersey?
After failing for months to get across her message about cutting property taxes, New Jersey’s Republican nominee decided to borrow a page from the Trump playbook. Down in the polls by double digits, Guadagno began hammering Murphy last month over his pledge to protect undocumented immigrants and make New Jersey a “sanctuary state” — echoing similar lines by Gillespie in Virginia.
Guadagno went all-in on the strategy, speaking in graphic detail about crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and releasing an ad that said Murphy would have the backs of “deranged murderers.”
It was an unusual move in New Jersey, where there are 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. While it hasn’t moved the needle — public opinion polls still show a 14-point margin — the approach assumes a very low turnout on Tuesday, and is designed to drive the base to get out and vote. Some Democrats do concede privately that the election could be much closer than polls suggest — perhaps single digits. Should Guadagno pull off an upset, or even narrow the margin to a few points, she will have set a new potential course for other statewide candidates in future years.
The Christie effect
Christie is leaving office with the lowest approval rating for a governor in New Jersey history — 14 percent in a recent poll.
Guadagno spent the past year or so trying to distance herself from the governor, even after spending some eight years as his loyal lieutenant. But voters aren’t so quick to dismiss the Christie link, with polls showing he’s been a real drag on Guadagno’s candidacy.
After the election, should opinion polls prove correct, the governor’s office and the entire 120-seat Legislature would be controlled by Democrats for the first time since 2010. Suddenly, the party in power wouldn’t be able to blame Christie for the state’s deep structural problems — from an incredibly underfunded retirement benefits system and a troubled transportation network to an economy that had lagged the nation.
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