Election 2017: Virginia Results Could Portend Strategies For 2018

Today is Election Day, with two governorships and a bunch of mayoral battles on the ballot around the country.

Govs. Christie (NJ) and McAuliffe (VA) are term limited.

But much of the nation’s attention will be on Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is term limited and where the race has been seen as, for the most part, a referendum on President Trump.

Here’s a quick guide to what’s at stake for Election 2017:


VIRGINIA:  This should, on paper at least, be a likely win for the Democrats.  The economy is doing well.  In the only Southern state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, Donald Trump remains quite unpopular.  And, as is usually the case with the Old Dominion, the election often results in a win for the party that’s out of power in the White House.  All that being said, the contest between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and former RNC chair Ed Gillespie is going down to the wire.  Nearly every poll shows Northam slightly ahead but Gillespie gaining ground.  Gillespie is a Bush-era Republican in good standing with the party establishment.  But since his shockingly close primary victory last June against a poorly-funded candidate who ran on Confederacy/heritage issues, Gillespie has moved further to the right, often taking Trump-like positions on immigration and crime; once a proponent of removing the Confederate monuments, he now says their fate should be left to local communities.  He has gone out of his way not to have Trump campaign on his behalf, and when an endorsement from the president came, he tried to dismiss it as being inconsequential.  But he’s well aware of the simmering resentments in the Trump-Bannon wing of the party, and he’s doing what he can to cozy up to them without alienating centrists.  And as for surveys that show him behind, there is a history of Virginia polls under-performing for the Republicans.  In 2013, McAuliffe had a huge lead in the pre-election surveys against GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli but wound up winning a squeaker.  A year later, when Gillespie was the clear underdog in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the race ended up veryclose.  If he manages to hold on to centrist Republicans while at the same time convincing Trumpsters he’s one of them, he could pull it out.  (And such a strategy may be the way forward for other Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms.)  For the Democrats, Northam is a folksy kind of candidate who doesn’t exactly light up a room but who is widely respected by the establishment wing of his party.  But as the Democrats veer to the left, Northam has for the most part resisted the move; a recent announcement that he would sign a bill outlawing any “sanctuary cities” drew sharp rebukes from party progressives.  And many of them remain displeased that he twice voted for George W. Bush for president.  There is also a good amount of frustration among Democrats who feel that the party needs to capitalize on what appears to be widespread anti-Trump sentiment but at the same time do more than simply blast the president.  As to be expected, the campaigns have gotten especially nasty, with both sides (more R than D) launching nonstop negative TV ads.  Of all the elections held since Trump became president, this is the big one.  (For more on the race, see Political Junkie #203.)

Also on the ballot are all 100 seats in the commonwealth’s House of Delegates, where the GOP holds 66 of them.  Control of the body is not thought to be at stake, but both parties will gladly tout any wins as a bellwether for 2018.

NEW JERSEY:  Four years ago Gov. Chris Christie (R) was at the apex of his popularity, winning a second term with 60 percent of the vote and landing him on the list of leading Republican presidential candidates for 2016.  Then came Bridgegate, the clumsy attempt by Christie staffers to impede traffic on the approach to the George Washington Bridge to make life miserable for the mayor of Fort Lee (a Democrat) who refused to endorse Christie’s re-election bid.  Christie now finds himself term limited and perhaps the least popular governor in the country.  But it would be an oversimplification to say the race — between Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R) and former Goldman Sachs exec Phil Murphy (D) — is just a referendum on Christie, even though Murphy continues to tie his opponent to the governor.  More likely, it’s a return to the Democratic traditions of the Garden State, which has voted Democratic for president seven elections in a row.  Murphy, with his deep pockets, managed to eliminate any serious threat to his nomination well before the primary.  He holds a sizable lead in nearly every poll.  Guadagno, whose relationship with Christie has been sometimes strained, has been seen as a fairly moderate officeholder who has moved noticeably to the right during the election.  (For more on the race, see Political Junkie #203.)

Both houses of the state legislature — all 80 members of the Assembly and all 40 of the Senate — are up for re-election.   The 52-28 Democratic majority in the Assembly (and 24-16 in the Senate) is not thought to be at risk.  The likely scenario of a Murphy win in the gubernatorial race will lead to solid Democratic control of state government.

MAYORS — A look at some key races.

NEW YORK:  For all the complaints about the job Mayor Bill de Blasio has been doing or his style of governing — or even questions about his integrity — there is no doubt about what will happen on Tuesday:  whatever the size of the margin, he will win a second term.  Armed with a left-wing agenda that at one point he hoped to expand across the country, de Blasio holds a lopsided lead over state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, who has little money or name recognition.  Not that he needed help, but his take charge posture following the recent fatal truck attack in lower Manhattan gave his stature a boost.  There was a time when Democratic mayoral candidates lost five in a row in NYC (1993-2009); those days seem gone forever.  (For more on the race, see Political Junkie #194.)

BOSTON:  Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat seeking a second term, has been running against President Trump far more than any of his opponents in this nonpartisan race.  It’s a strategy that frustrates his leading challenger, city Councilor Tito Jackson, who has tried to make the case that affordable housing and improved schools are more important than The Donald.  But Walsh knows his city and knows that his regular bashing of Trump, on issues such as sanctuary cities and climate change, has proven popular.  In the initial election in September, Walsh outpolled runner-up Jackson 63-29 percent.  There’s no reason to think things will be much different today.

DETROIT:  Four years ago Mike Duggan became the first white mayor elected here since 1969.  Race may play a part in Tuesday’s runoff — he faces state Sen. Coleman Young II, son of the city’s first black mayor, the late Coleman Young, who served a record five terms.  Duggan says he deserves four more years for what he has accomplished in helping the city’s business climate.  Young counters by saying that came at the expense of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.  As with Boston, the runoff is between two Democrats in an officially nonpartisan election.  In the initial August primary, Duggan led Young 67-27 percent.  Today’s result could be closer, but not by much.

ATLANTA:  Mayor Kasim Reed is term-limited after eight years in office.  Race is a big issue here in a city that hasn’t elected a white mayor since 1969.  The city is basically split between the mostly black southside and the predominantly white northside.  Ten candidates are on the ballot, with city Councilmember Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is black, and Mary Norwood, who is white and who barely lost to Reed in 2009, thought to be leading the pack.  The top two finishers advance to a Dec. 5 runoff.

CLEVELAND:   Mayor Frank Jackson is favored in his bid for an unprecedented fourth term against city Councilmember Zack Reed.  Both are Democrats in a nonpartisan election.

SEATTLE:  The big election news came back in May, when Mayor Ed Murray, caught in a sex scandal, announced he would not seek re-election.  The two candidates who advanced from the primary are former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan, the daughter of former gov. candidate Martin Durkan who is openly gay, and city planner Cary Moon.

CHARLOTTE:  In one of the rare actual partisan mayoral elections this year, the choice is between two members of the City Council:  Vi Lyles, a Democrat, and Kenny Smith, a Republican.  The incumbent mayor, Jennifer Roberts, was defeated by Lyles in the Democratic primary.  The election is thought to be close.

MINNEAPOLIS:  Sixteen candidates are on the ballot, mostly Democrats, including incumbent Betsy Hodges.  Hodges failed to win the DFL party endorsement for a second term, in part for her role in the aftermath of the killing of an unarmed Australian woman by a policeman, an incident in which the public was outraged over the fact that very little information was divulged.  As a result of the killing, Hodges forced out the city’s police chief, but to some voters that wasn’t enough.  Leading candidates include state Rep. Raymond Dehn and city Councilmember Jacob Frey.  Minneapolis elects its mayors via “ranked-choice” voting, in which voters rank their top three choices, in order.  If no candidate receives a majority of first choice votes, there’s a reallocation.  Confused?  Me too.  Fortunately, Minnesota Public Radio has put together this video to explain it all.

OTHER RACE OF NOTE:  There’s a special election in the vacant 45th district of the Washington state Senate, a legislative chamber that is evenly split and will thus determine the balance of power.  Democrat Manka Dhingra is favored over Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund.  And the mayor of Flint, Mich. — the city of lead-tainted water infamy — is the subject of a recall election.  Karen Weaver, who is black and the city’s first female mayor, will appear on the ballot along with 17 would-be challengers.  Her opponents see her as corrupt and incompetent; she says it’s about racism and sexism.

Wondering about the special Alabama Senate race?  That’s on Dec. 12.

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