Looking Past 2020 To 2021

Regardless of what happens with the 2020 election, predictions and prognostications will eventually turn to the 2021 election and its meaning for the much larger midterm elections which will be held in a Senate field tilted to Democrats and a House playing field reshaped by redistricting and divided government in many states.

The off-year election right after divisive Presidential elections feature gubernatorial and legislative contests in only two states – Virginia and New Jersey. Whereas New Jersey has been blue for decades but has elected Republican Governors in the past (socially moderate Republicans like much of the Northeast has), Virginia has been a formerly red, trending purple to blue state Mid-Atlantic state.

Fueling Virginia’s leftward lurch has been a massive growth of the vote in urban and suburban Northern Virginia. At least until Donald Trump, where the suburbs across the state stretching from Central Virginia’s Richmond suburbs to Southern Virginia’s anchored around Virginia Beach City flipped blue in 2018 and likely will remain so in a week and a half.

While New Jersey has an urban/suburban split, Republicans would be fighting an uphill battle in the state even if Trump loses (removing that stain from the voter perceptions of the party). The Governor is hardy perfect or popular but he is wealthy and lacks the taint of scandal which gives Republicans a shot against an incumbent in the state (paging Jon Corzine).

Remove New Jersey from the chess board the ultimate prize is Virginia. Virginia is unique in the nation in that it only allows its governors to serve one four year term before being termed out of office. One can run for non-consecutive terms as many times as they want (more on that in a second).

Virginia is also unique in that until 2013, the state had elected a governor of the opposite party in the White House. However, that trend seems to largely have ended with the state’s leftward shift. Certainly demographic shifts, as mentioned above in NoVA, are driving the state’s leftward move.

But how much of it is Trump? In 2013, Republicans chose a flawed nominee and he lost by less than 2 percent. In 2017, Democrats won by nine points and retook the legislature. In turn, they have passed a slurry of progressive bills achieving long sought goals while directing voters eyes to Trump.

So, perhaps nothing will define 2021 more than what just happened in 2020. If Trump wins reelection, Virginia is off the table for the party. But, what if Biden wins? Well, in that case, the state becomes a light blue state which remains an uphill climb for the GOP but if a candidate with a the right message and persona comes along Virginia is in play.

The question is what is Virginia currently (Trump or no Trump)? If it is a truly blue state than the dynamics of a fiscally conservative, socially moderate electorate are more likely to take hold. In that case, rural conservative voters will hold their noses and vote for the Republican so that candidate can appeal to suburban liberals who want the Governor to be a check on a blue legislature (and Virginia’s is blue).

But, if Virginia is more like North Carolina, or still has shades of 2013 or 2017, a competitive Mid-Atlantic state, the deep divides between suburban/urban and rural, ironically might work against Republicans. In this case, unlike North Carolina where the suburban vote is split close to even and the rural vote still matches the urban vote, Virginia’s blue suburbs and urban vote outweigh the increasingly Republican rural vote. In a state like this, suburbanites would feel like they need to keep electing Democratic governors to be a check on the worst impulses of a conservative minority.

Again, though, much of this will depend on what happens in a week or so. Candidates will matter quite a lot as well. Republicans lucked out in 2009 (Bob McDonald) with their candidate. In 2013 (Ken Cuccinelli), they ran a flawed candidate and in 2017 the right candidate ran at the wrong time (Ed Gillespie would have been perfect for 2021). The Republican bench is a lot thinner in the state than it used to be but finding the right candidate may be as important as anything else in this race. Democrats may field their second black nominee for Governor in Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, or return to Clinton crony and former Governor Terry McAuliffe.

It should also be mentioned the state senate will also be up which is controlled by Democrats. A strong GOP nominee might be able to swing back a couple seats to the party.

Ultimately, all analysis aside, past election result and demographic considerations, I suspect it depends on whether Trump is reelected or not. If Trump wins, Virginia’s blue lurch if not accelerates at least continues. If not, and Joe Biden wins (likely bringing a Democratic Senate and House with him), one can expect a backlash from more affluent, moderate suburban voters in NoVA which combined with the right message and right candidate, might be just enough to deliver the GOP an upset in the run – up to the 2022 midterms.


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