2017 Elections Offer First Glimpse into Midterm Dynamics
Key off-off-year contests will test Trump emulators and see early battles in Democrat civil war
The off-off-year elections — the small handful of major races that are held in neither presidential nor congressional midterm years — can often provide a potent snapshot of the political landscape. And based of the earliest polling for 2017, and historic patterns, that could be bad news for Republicans in 2018.
But neither polling nor historical patterns are quite what they used in a post-2016 America.
While Virginia has a Democratic candidate comparing Trump to 9/11, New Jersey has a Democratic candidate comparing the president to Adolf Hitler.
Just three races have national prominence. Virginia and New Jersey will be electing new governors. New York City is holding a race for mayor — the one municipal office that is tantamount to a governorship and sometimes called the second toughest job behind the presidency. As was the case in 2013, Virginia will likely be the most-watched race in the country, which includes two competitive primaries. Both Virginia and New York City even have candidates aspiring to be the Donald Trump of their respective races.
What Do Off-Off Year Elections Tell Us About Midterms?
The most recent comparison is 2009, the first year of President Obama, when Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey previewed the 2010 thumping of the president’s party. Similarly, in President Bill Clinton’s first year, 1993, Republicans swept Virginia, New Jersey, and New York City. This was a precursor to the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate.
But it’s not necessarily a consistent preview.
Democrats were victorious in governors’ races in 2001, President George W. Bush’s first year in office, but the GOP held onto the New York mayor’s office. Republicans still won big in the 2002 congressional midterms. Although, extending the Bush era, the 2005 Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey could be considered a run-up to Democrats recapturing Congress in 2006.
Ultimately, if Trump has quantifiable successes by November, such as reviving the economy, cutting spending, and controlling illegal immigration, then Republicans will likely be successful in both 2017 and 2018. If not, then Democratic candidates could succeed by running against Trump.
Virginia’s Establishment Challenged in Both Parties
Virginia is a state that has historically gone the opposite direction of the presidential result the year before it — the close 2013 governors’ race being an aberration. Before that, the last time the president’s party won was 1977. At least in theory, a GOP presidential victory in 2016 bodes poorly for a Republican victory in Virginia in 2017.
For both major party primaries, Virginia presents a classic Establishment vs. anti-Establishment battle, almost as if the spirit of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) looms large.
For Republicans, Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, who narrowly lost a 2014 Senate race to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), is the clear Establishment choice gaining most endorsements. Gillespie’s better-than-expected showing against Warner demonstrates he can draw voters to the polls. On the other hand, he was also running in an incredibly favorable year for Republicans and came up short.
Meanwhile, Corey Stewart was standing up against illegal immigration long before it was cool, as the chairman of the Prince William County Supervisors. The Washington Post called him, “Virginia’s Donald Trump.” Stewart was Trump’s state campaign chairman in 2016. True, Trump lost Virginia. But Stewart won four times in a Northern Virginia county, running on the Right. And that matters.
Northern Virginia is filled with federal employees — and federal contractors — that want to see government grow. Republicans often do quite well in the rest of the Old Dominion but are overwhelmed by Democratic sentiment in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. A Republican who is competitive in this region of the state — as former Gov. Bob McDonnell was in the 2009 governor’s race — will likely win.
So, while Gillespie and Stewart may seem like opposites, there is reason to think either can be competitive in November. Gillespie is a creature of Washington and is right at home in Northern Virginia. Stewart kept getting elected in the region to lead the state’s second largest county.
State Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) can tout a decent biography, as the only veteran in the race, having been a graduate of the Naval Academy before becoming a deep-sea diver and engineering officer. He has also met payroll, having owned two ship repair businesses. He is known for being one of the key legislators to help broker a sweeping transportation bill in the state. So, nothing to make him a national star at this point, but he has taken care of things in his state.
Businessman Denver Riggleman has also jumped into the race, but seems to be making very little impact in early polling.
But with 50 percent of Virginia Republicans undecided, according to a February Christopher Newport University poll, everything could definitely change before the June 13 primary. Among those voters who have a choice, Gillespie has a sizable lead of 33 percent, compared to just 9 percent for Wagner, 7 percent for Stewart, and 1 percent for Riggleman. At least some of Gillespie’s big lead can be attributed to name recognition and being on the statewide ballot just over two years ago.
On the Democratic side, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe — constitutionally limited to one term — endorsed his Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam to continue his legacy, and Northam has managed to get most big Democratic endorsements in the state. But Northam seems to have continued another troublesome McAuliffe legacy.
McAuliffe came under federal investigation for his fundraising practices from his 2013 campaign, according to news reports in 2016. In January, Politico reported that Northam might have violated Virginia law by raising money when the state legislature was in session. At any rate, he was ready for a coronation, starting the year with a reported $2.5 million war chest.
Progressives are rallying behind former one-term U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.). Like former President Obama, Perriello mistook his own 2008 election as part of a larger mandate for progressive transformation, voting down the line with the president. Obama stumped for Perriello in 2010, a campaign he lost. But Obama liked him enough to appoint him to a State Department job.
Perriello threw out red meat rhetoric to the Left by declaring in February, “The election of Donald Trump is a little bit like a political and constitutional Sept. 11 for us, to be honest.”
The CNU poll found Northam with a sizable but not insurmountable lead of 26 percent to 15 percent over Perriello, who could seek to ride the “resistance” wave to the party’s nomination. That’s certainly possible with 59 percent of Democrats still undecided.
As for hypothetical general election matchups, polls are mixed. A Quinnipiac University poll from January found either Democrat comfortably beating any of the four Republicans in a head-to-head matchup.
However, a Mason-Dixon poll in January found Gillespie would win 44 percent to Northam’s 41 percent. Gillespie would beat Perriello 45 percent to 36 percent. Northam would beat Stewart by 45 percent to 37 percent.
New Jersey: Christie Fatigue vs. Goldman Sachs Weariness
Ten candidates are officially running for governor in New Jersey, and more could join the race. But — at least for now — it seems likely we’ll see Republican Kim Guadagno vs. Democrat Phil Murphy on the ballot in November.
Gov. Chris Christie — re-elected with 60 percent of the vote in 2013 — is considerably less popular now, and Democrats feel good about their chances to flip the state back.
Their leading candidate is Murphy, former U.S. ambassador to Germany, and a former Goldman Sachs executive, like former Gov. Jon Corzine. The other candidates are state Sen. Ray Lesniak, state Assemblyman John Wisniewski, former Clinton Treasury Department official Jim Johnson, and two activists — Bill Brennan and Bob Hoatson.
While Virginia has a Democratic candidate comparing Trump to 9/11, New Jersey has a Democratic candidate comparing the president to Adolf Hitler, as Murphy did on Nov. 20 last year.
The leading candidate on the Republican side would have to be Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, though serving with Christie for eight years will likely be a liability. State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, Nutley Township Commissioner Steve Rogers, and businessman Joseph Rudy Rullo are also running.
A Quinnipiac University poll released on Jan. 31 showed Murphy soundly leading Guadagno by 45 percent to 29 percent. Still, 22 percent are undecided.
New York Mayor: Referendum on Trump or de Blasio
Let’s first stipulate that Hillary Clinton most likely will not run for mayor. If she did, polls show she would win. But 2016 presidential polls said that, too.
So, then what? How about a real estate developer who never held political office and is considered by political observers to be totally unelectable?
Paul J. Massey Jr., a Republican, doesn’t have a lot of name recognition, but he hauled in $1.6 million in the last six months of 2016, more than New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who raised $1 million in the same time frame, according to The New York Times. Former New York Jet Michael Faulkner, a Harlem pastor, is also seeking the Republican nomination.
The city was better off under Republicans — or quasi-Republican leadership. For all Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s issues, he essentially kept up the pro-growth, anti-crime policies of Mayor Rudy Giuliani in place, while de Blasio has reversed much of both. The die-hard statist took the city on a different track and New Yorkers aren’t happy. That’s why de Blasio is facing a crowded Democratic primary.
Still, it’s that crowded field that will probably help him. A Quinnipiac poll finds the incumbent with 35 percent against five other Democrats, and there are more than five running.
The mayor has sought to raise his national profile and rally his base by vowing to defy Trump's order to defund sanctuary cities, a status that New York has long had predating his tenure. He further wants to make the re-election campaign about Trump — and not him.
The most noteworthy Democrat challenging de Blasio is Bo Dietl, a former police officer and current private investigator who frequents Fox News. It's not because he has the best chance, but because he is the most colorful character. Then again, that's something that helps in a crowded primary. Dietl openly admits he voted for Trump because he gets things done. If de Blasio is running against Trump, Dietl is running as the candidate who can work with the president for the benefit of the city.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Dietle said he's a Democrat on policy issues, and even played up Democrats' favorite topic, identity politics, by bringing up his DNA test.
"I'm 44 percent Italian, 30 percent Eastern European, 6 percent Middle Eastern, 2 percent African, 2 percent Indian from India, two percent Asian, 2 percent Jewish," Dietle said. "I'm a freaking mosaic."