A year into Donald Trump’s presidency, elections Tuesday in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere will offer the best window yet into how voters view his job performance – and whether Democrats have corrected the problems that plagued them in 2016.
The state to watch is Virginia, where Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam faces Republican lobbyist and former George W. Bush administration official Ed Gillespie in the race for governor.
The contest has largely revolved around Trump, and looks to be the closest major race in a year that is also expected to feature blowouts in other high-profile contests.
Here’s a breakdown of what to watch on Tuesday:
The key races on Tuesday’s ballots:
Virginia governor: Northam and Gillespie square off in the marquee swing-state election of 2017. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has earned high marks on Virginia’s economy – but the race to replace him has instead focused on Trump and cultural issues. The heavily populated northern Virginia suburbs around Washington are key to deciding the race’s outcome.
New Jersey governor: Outgoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his record-low approval ratings hover mightily over the contest to replace him. His Republican lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, has tried to distance herself from Christie. But former Goldman Sachs executive and US Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee, has led consistently in the polls – and spent tens of millions of his own dollars on the race. A Murphy loss would be a stunning upset.
New York City mayor: Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned in the final days with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders – a sign he sees himself as a liberal champion. He faces Republican Nicole Malliotakis and two third-party candidates who lost the Democratic primary. De Blasio is expected to cruise to reelection.
Utah’s 3rd Congressional District: Former Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz retired mid-term, giving up the gavel of the House’s oversight committee and opening up this seat in reliably Republican Utah. Provo Mayor John Curtis, the Republican, is well positioned to hold onto the district, which President Donald Trump won by 18 points in 2016, against Democratic candidate Kathie Allen, a doctor.
Virginia lieutenant governor: Democrat Justin Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor, faces off against Republican state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel in a race that – somewhat unusually – is decided separately from the top of the ticket. Most states elect governors and lieutenant governors together as part of the same ticket. Still, in Virginia, this race is likely to match whichever party wins the governor’s race.
Virginia attorney general: Democratic incumbent Mark Herring is best known for refusing to defend Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban against a lawsuit that sought to overturn it. Republican John Adams, the challenger, has accused Herring of promoting progressive causes rather than doing his job.
When the polls close:
In Virginia, voting ends at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday. In New Jersey, it’s 8 p.m. In New York, polls close at 9 p.m. And in Utah, polls close at 8 p.m. MT – which is 10 p.m. ET.
Five questions for Tuesday night:
1. Can Trump’s tactics sell without Trump?
Long known as an advocate of a bigger Republican tent and more inclusive immigration policies, Gillespie has taken a hard Trumpian turn in the Virginia governor’s race.
His TV ads have included scary images of MS-13 gangs while displaying the words “kill, rape, control,” and Gillespie pledging to keep Confederate monuments up. In them, he also has hit Democrats for automatically restoring the voting rights of former felons who have completed their sentences.
Those culture warrior tactics were designed to make sure Trump’s base turned out for Gillespie, who nearly lost the Republican primary to former Trump campaign state chairman Corey Stewart. But they alienated a lot of Gillespie’s old friends:
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams disputed those critiques, saying, “Ed is surging in the polls because Republicans are united behind his campaign, and because he is running on substantive policies broadly popular with the people of Virginia.”
The question is whether Trump voters will buy Gillespie’s authenticity and turn out to vote for him – particularly since Trump didn’t campaign with Gillespie at all despite spending many weekends at his golf course in Virginia over the summer.
2. Will minority voters turn out for Northam?
Former President Barack Obama laid this concern out succinctly when he campaigned for Northam in Richmond last month.
“Off-year elections, midterm elections – Democrats sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent,” Obama said.
“And so as a consequence, folks wake up and they’re surprised – ‘How come we can’t get things through Congress? How come we can’t get things through the state house?’” Obama said. “Because you slept through the election.”
Northam’s campaign has been laser-focused on turning out black voters, in particular. Those voters make up about 20% of Virginia’s electorate and tend to vote strongly Democratic.
But in the race’s final days, Northam changed his position on sanctuary cities to say he opposes them and only voted against a state bill to ban them – a move that inspired Gillespie’s MS-13 ads – because no such cities exist in Virginia. The change in position has risked alienating Latino and immigrant voters, and might have sown doubts about Northam into some progressives’ minds.
Meanwhile, a pro-Northam ad aired briefly by the Latino Victory Fund stirred controversy that could energize pro-Trump Republican voters. The ad depicted four minority children being chased through neighborhood streets by a white man driving a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker. The ad, which Gillespie blasted as depicting his supporters as racists, stirred up conservative outrage online.
3. Will progressive groups’ ground troops pay off?
Outside groups are playing a big role in Northam’s campaign, supplying digital advertising reinforcements for a candidate who has only aired TV ads as well as ground troops, who have made calls and knocked on doors for weeks.
Planned Parenthood, a leader of those groups, has a lot on the line in both the governor’s race and lieutenant governor’s race, where Fairfax faces Holtzman Vogel. The Republican is known for having sponsored a 2012 bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo vaginal ultrasounds – which Planned Parenthood vehemently opposed.
Other Democratic groups have bickered about Virginia since Northam defeated former Rep. Tom Perriello in the gubernatorial primary. But a share of the credit for wins in statewide and even state assembly contests would go to Planned Parenthood, which announced in August it would spend $3 million to help Northam.
4. Can Democrats take full control in Washington state?
One more down-ballot race to watch: a state senate contest in Washington.
If Democrat Manka Dhingra defeats Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, control of the senate would tip into Democratic hands. Democrats already control the state house and governor’s office – which means a win in that race would give them the “trifecta”: unified control of Washington’s government.
This is incredibly important. Right now, Republicans have that “trifecta” in 26 states, which gives them broad authority not just over laws and budgets, but the redistricting process every 10 years. Democrats, though, have trifectas in only six states – California, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It’s perhaps the most vivid example of the party’s collapse during Obama’s tenure, and an imbalance that reflects Democrats’ broad structural disadvantages at the state level that entrench Republican dominance there.
5. Will there be a shocker?
The reason so much focus is on Virginia is that Tuesday’s other big contests seem like sure things. De Blasio in New York City, Murphy in New Jersey and Curtis in Utah have all appeared to be on course to cruise to victory for months.
But close elections have a way of sneaking up on people. If any of those three contests suddenly turn tighten up, it would set off alarm bells across the Democratic Party in de Blasio or Murphy’s cases or the GOP if it’s Curtis, prompting the election night narrative to change suddenly and dramatically.