Last week, Glenn Youngkin earned the Republican nomination for this year’s Virginia governor’s race. Virginia, along with New Jersey, hosts the only gubernatorial elections this year. Voters throughout the Old Dominion will also be casting ballots in legislative elections.
And while Virginia is just one state (or commonwealth), the outcome in these races could give us a real clue about where the national political environment stands heading into the 2022 midterms. If Republicans do well this year, it could be a good sign for them next year.
Virginia’s unique in that no person can serve as governor more than one term in a row. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam must step down after this term, meaning the seat is open, and neither Youngkin nor whoever the Democrats choose as their candidate in next month’s primary (probably former Gov. Terry McAuliffe) will have a clear incumbency advantage.
That’s important because governor’s races without incumbents running can, on the whole, tell us a lot about the political environment, if we know how to put them in context.
When I say context, I mean knowing the political lean of the state. Most political observers view the Democrats as moderately favored to hold on to Virginia’s governor’s mansion because the commonwealth has seen a marked shift to the left in the last decade.
President Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points in 2020, after Hillary Clinton won it by 5 points in 2016. No Republican has won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009.
Virginia is 5 points more Democratic than the nation, according to the last two presidential races (when giving more weight to the most recent one).
This means that if the Democrats win this year’s governor’s election by 5 points, it’s consistent with a national environment in which the two parties are on equal footing. For Republicans to be facing a better political environment than in 2020 (when Biden won by a little less than 5 points nationally and by 10 points in Virginia), they want to keep any defeat to single digits.
To see how the relationship between Virginia elections and next year’s federal elections has worked in the past, look at the last Virginia gubernatorial election in 2017.
The state was somewhat less Democratic heading into 2017 with a Democratic lean in presidential elections of a little more than 2 points. The Democrats won the governor’s race by a little less than 9 points, which meant the result was consistent with a national environment of Democrats ahead by about 6.5 points.
They would go on to win the national House vote the following year by 8.6 points – very close to the overperformance they had in Virginia.
Of course, any one race can be dependent on candidate quality and other factors. Governors’ races individually can be misleading (for example, Democrats winning the 2013 Virginia governor’s race before getting trounced in the 2014 midterms), and they’re best examined as a whole.
In the median cycle since 2002, the difference between how much Democrats outperformed their baseline in the average governor’s race without an incumbent and the national House vote has been just 1.6 points. In 2018, it was less than a point.
The fact that groups of elections can tell us more than any one individually is why we need to keep an eye on Virginia’s House of Delegates elections this year as well. Any one race’s eccentricities tend to get ironed out in the average. All 100 seats in the state’s lower legislative body are up for grabs.
Democrats beat the Republicans by about 9 points when you combined all the House of Delegate races in 2017. In other words, it pointed to a similarly strong national environment for the Democrats as the governor’s race did.
In 2013, however, the delegate races pointed in a different direction than the governor’s race. Republicans, who fielded a lot more candidates, did about 13 points better in the delegate races as a whole than would have been expected in a neutral political environment. Looking at just races where both parties ran candidates, it was closer to an 8 point overperformance by Republicans.
Republicans would go on to win the House of Representatives in 2014 by about 6 points and easily wrestle Senate control from the Democrats.
What this means for 2021 heading into 2022 is pretty simple. Democrats should do well in both the Virginia gubernatorial delegate races, if the political environment is in their favor. If they only barely win or lose in both, we’re probably looking at the usual midterm losses the party that controls the White House has.