There is an unwritten rule of modern politics that concerns Virginia and New Jersey elections. Since 1989, the party that wins the White House has been “rebuked” the following year in the gubernatorial races in both Virginia, and New Jersey. Logically it makes sense, as the party that lost the White House is usually seething to get back in the game and win something again after having lost the biggest national political contest there is.
Chris Donovan, of ABC News, put out this tweet pointing out the historical pattern:
Trump is the FIFTH President in a row to have his party lose BOTH the VA & NJ gubernatorial races in his first year in office.
2017: Dems Northam/Murphy
2009: GOPers McDonnell/Christie
2001: Dems Warner/McGreevey
1993: GOPers Allen/Whitman
1989: Dems Wilder/Florio
— Chris Donovan (@chrisdonovan) November 8, 2017
So flasback, if you will, to 2001, when George W. Bush had just won the Presidency in 2000 after a bitter recount. The first major elections happening after that were, of course, the statewide races for Governor in Virginia and New Jersey. Time Magazine recorded the history for us in a story from November 7, 2001:
The Virginia race, which pitted Warner against Republican Mark Earley, was the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the state’s history. Warner, a moderate businessman, raised more than $18 million for his campaign, while Earley, a longtime politico, put roughly $10 million into his attempt at the statehouse. Virginia, generally considered a solidly Republican state, has not elected a Democrat since Douglas Wilder won the vote in 1989. Observers say Warner won this year by staking out centrist positions on popular issues like gun ownership. Earley was also hurt by party infighting over budget and tax issues.
In New Jersey, McGreevey won easily over his rival, conservative Republican Bret Schundler. The GOP candidate was recently endorsed by New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the man with the Midas touch, but even that wasn’t enough to beat back McGreevey’s aggressive campaign to paint Schundler as a reactionary whose views on abortion and gun control were utterly out of sync with those of the general public. McGreevey was absent from the campaign trail for the last couple of days before the election; his wife is in the hospital with pregnancy complications.
The vibe from this story is muted, as if to say, Virginia elected a governor, and New Jersey elected a governor, man bites dog. There was little in in terms of vote being framed as a “rebuke” of President Bush at the time. Of course, the world was coming off the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks just a few months earlier, so the politics during this time frame was almost exclusively focused on foreign policy and terrorism.
Let’s jump ahead to 2008, when Barack Obama wins the presidency. Obama trounced John McCain to become the 44th President of the United States. Of course, in 2009, you know which states had their off-year elections ready to go. Republicans were seething to fight back against Obama, and the race in Virginia became a national referendum of sorts. New Jersey followed suit, though Chris Christie was able to run on property taxes and abuse in Trenton to sweep himself to victory.
In a post-election story from November 4, 2009, the UK Telegraph literally called Virginia and New Jersey a “blow” to President Obama:
Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate, trounced his Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds, for whom Mr Obama had campaigned, by 17 points to become Virginia governor. Republicans also won the races in Virginia for lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Governor Jon Corzine, the incumbent Democrat, was defeated by Chris Christie in New Jersey, where no Republican had won state-wide since 1997.
It was a sobering night for Mr Obama, who had campaigned ferociously for Mr Corzine, appearing at two of his rallies on Sunday. A sole consolation was an unexpectedly close race in upstate New York, where it seemed that the Democrat might overcome a Conservative party candidate after the Republican withdrew.
As stated, President Obama campaigned heavily in New Jersey, and lost. This made the “rebuke” much stronger since he had personally been involved in the race. President Obama also campaigned strongly with Deeds in Virginia, but the Telegraph leaves that out. Despite Obama’s popularity nationwide, Democrats lost both states that night to a wave of Republican voter enthusiasm.
This brings us to 2017, and the election that happened on Tuesday night. Once again, both Virginia and New Jersey delivered for the party that lost the White House. Similar to 2009, the 2017 vote is being framed as a “rebuke” of President Trump:
The Boston Herald called last night a rebuke of President Trump:
Voters in Virginia and New Jersey backed Democrats for governor in two closely watched elections last night, an apparent rebuke to President Trump and the campaign themes that helped propel him to victory a year ago.
Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated GOP opponent Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and centrist Republican who did not embrace the president directly, but campaigned on issues that Trump has embraced like immigration, protecting confederate statues and crime.
In New Jersey, low approval ratings for outgoing Gov. Chris Christie, a former Trump presidential campaign opponent-turned-supporter, helped propel Democrat Phil Murphy over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.
The victories served as a boost to the Democratic Party, which has struggled with internal conflicts since last year’s presidential election defeat of Hillary Clinton, and has had difficulty coalescing around a core message to voters.
President Trump never campaigned in either state, though he did offer endorsements and tweets of support for Ed Gillespie in Virginia. Vice President Mike Pence did, however, make one appearance in southwest Virginia with the GOP statewide ticket.
Here are some major points to takeaway from this trend in modern politics:
- Despite the “rebuke,” Clinton, Bush and Obama won second terms
- VA and NJ are almost a “gimme” to the party out of power
- Trump was less involved in either race than Barack Obama was in 2009
My main point here is that elections must be viewed historically, and history informs as to what Virginia and New Jersey truly mean in the grand scheme. In 2002, President Bush picked up seats in the House midterms, though most attribute that to the 9/11 attacks as a rallying cry. In 2010, President Obama lost the House to Republicans. It could be safe to conclude that if we’re informed by history, and the trend of Virginia and New Jersey continued in 2017, then Republicans may be imperiled in the 2018 midterms if nothing changes to quell Democratic voter enthusiasm.