Fall Elections

In most of the world, the practice is to limit the number of races being contested on any given election day.  Thus, regional elections are held on a separate day from national elections.  In the U.S., however, most states opt to hold state elections on the same day as national elections.  Thus, in most states, the election for governor either falls on the same day as the mid-term election or on the same day as the presidential election.  In a small number of states, however, the election for governor occurs in an odd-year.

Two states — Virginia and New Jersey — hold the election in the year after the presidential election.  (Three states — Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi — hold the elections in the year before the presidential election.)  Both New Jersey and Virginia have a tendency — not absolute, but a tendency — to elect a governor from the party not in the White House.  In New Jersey, the last time that the party in the White House won the governor’s race was 1985.  In Virginia, while the party in the White House won in 2013, the last previous time that the party in the White House won was 1973.  There are a lot of reasons for these results — including. similar to the problem that the party in the White House faces in mid-term elections, the simple fact that governing is much harder than running for office, so supporters of the party in power tend to be disappointed with the actual fruits of their victory while those out of power tend to be angry and motivated.

As things currently stand, things are looking very good for the Democratic candidates in New Jersey.  Aside from New Jersey’s normal Democratic lean and the tendency for the party not in the White House to win, the Republicans nominated the current Lieutenant Governor, making it hard to separate the current Republican ticket from the corruption of the current administration of term-limited governor Chris Christie.  The Democratic candidate, Ambassador Phil Murphy, leads by double digits in every poll this fall.  While some of the polls show enough undecided voters to leave a theoretical opening for the Republican candidate, the race in New Jersey is not particularly close.

Virginia looks to be closer.  The Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, seems to have a lead in the polls — the typical poll shows a lead of around 5% — but there is one recent poll showing the Republican candidate leading.  (The difference in the polls is mostly driven by their estimate of the composition of the likely voter pool.  Given recent elections in Virginia and the tendency of the party in the White House to underperform, the one poll favoring the Republicans almost certainly over-estimates the number of Republican voters.)  My hunch is that the Democratic candidate will win, but this race is not a sure thing.

In addition to the two governor’s races — and the down ballot races — in New Jersey and Virginia, there will be a special election in Utah’s third district.  As with most of the other special elections this year, the special election is in a relatively safe district (partisan vote index of R +25, sixteenth most Republican district in the country).  As such, the chances of a Democratic win are slim, but it is likely that the race will be closer than those numbers would indicate.

Besides the Utah election on November 7, there are two later state-wide special elections — the run-off in Louisiana for State Treasurer (to fill the vacancy created when the previous Treasurer won the U.S. Senate race in 2016) which will occur on November 18 (a Saturday as is typical for state elections in Louisiana) and the U.S. Senate election in Alabama on December 12.  In Louisiana, the Democrat (Derrick Edwards) finished first in the top two primary with 31% of the vote, but that was with three Republicans finishing close to 20% each, all getting more than 18% each.  In short, as is typical in Louisiana, the Republicans definitely have an advantage, but in a low turn-out election anything is possible.

Finally, in Alabama, the polls seem to show a narrow lead for the Republican candidate.  However, the Republican candidate is so extreme that the Democratic candidate — former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones — has a fighting chance.  We will probably be revisiting this race in early December.

In short, the next two months feature two races in which the Democrats should win, and three races with uphill odds — ranging from slightly uphill to very steeply uphill.  And that’s not counting three state legislative special elections (two in Republican districts and one in a Democratic district along with the regular legislative elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

Of course, the races for Governor in Virginia and New Jersey are the first of several elections over the next four years that will have an impact on redistricting in 2021.  The Republicans winning the Governor’s office in both states in 2009 played a significant role in state congressional district maps that are favorable to the Republicans.  (In Virginia — where Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature and the governorship, the Republicans have 7 representatives in the U.S. House to 4 representatives for the Democrats despite Clinton winning Virginia by a significant number.  The lines in New Jersey — where Democrats have more power in the legislature — more closely resemble a proportional result  with the Democrats having a 7 to 5 advantage, but that advantage comes from winning a very close seat that had been held by the Republicans in both 2012 and 2014. )  In short, the battle for fair lines in 2022 starts now, and these two races are crucial to getting and keeping a Democratic majority for the next President.


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