Every four years, a sparse array of local and state contests in the aftermath of a presidential election provides a challenge for politicians and pundits seeking variations in the nation’s political trends.
Often, these races buoyed the party that just lost the White House, either in the inevitable special elections for congressional vacancies or in the two states — New Jersey and Virginia — that choose governors.
Because the 2021 special congressional contests are mainly in safe districts, these races are more likely to follow form than provide revelations. That was certainly true in the Democratic victory in the recent Louisiana race and the fact two Republicans made the runoff in a suburban Dallas district.
But two statewide contests on opposite sides of the country — one traditional, one not — might provide the best opportunities for testing if the Democrats are maintaining their recent strength or Republicans are beginning to mount a comeback.
One is the regularly scheduled gubernatorial election in Virginia, where Republicans hope to end the recent Democratic domination that has seen only one GOP governor elected in the last 20 years. The other is a recall election in California where Republicans hope to unseat a Democratic governor for the second time in this century.
For more than four decades — with one lone exception — the winner of Virginia’s governorship has been the party that lost the presidential election just 12 months earlier. That was eight years ago, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe was narrowly elected.
Since then, Democrats have solidified their hold on the onetime conservative bastion, capturing both houses of the General Assembly as well as the three elected statewide offices. Republicans have not won Virginia in a presidential election since 2004, and Joe Biden outpaced his national showing there last year with 54% of the vote.
Unfortunately for Republican hopes, this year’s Democratic nominee is again likely to be McAuliffe, who was a popular state executive and is seeking a second non-consecutive term in the only state that still bars its governors from seeking reelection.
Polls show the 64-year-old McAuliffe with a commanding lead in the June 8 Democratic primary over four rivals, three of them African Americans. Popular and well-financed, he’ll be a strong favorite in November.
Meanwhile, as elsewhere, the state’s Republicans are struggling to throw off the shadow of former President Donald Trump, never popular in the state. Fearful that an unabashed Trump supporter, state Sen. Amanda Chase, might win a primary, party leaders opted instead for something of a hybrid, an “unassembled” state convention held last Saturday in some 40 different locations.
Chase has six opponents, the most prominent of whom are two businessmen, Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder, and the former GOP speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox. They are competing with one another in echoing Trump’s call for tightening voter laws, though there is no evidence fraud is a problem.
The GOP’s best hope is a possible backlash against the Democratic legislature’s enactment of liberal legislation, including new gun laws, or dissatisfaction over state management of school closings and vaccine distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
If Virginia’s election is pretty much politics as usual, California’s is not. For the second time in 18 years, Republicans hope to benefit from the state’s century-old voter empowerment procedures to “recall” an elected Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom.
In 2003, a similar effort unseated Gov. Gray Davis, whose popularity plunged over his mishandling of energy shortages and state finances. Voters installed movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, as the state’s governor, and he subsequently won a second term in 2006.
Davis, never that popular, had been reelected in 2002 by a relatively modest margin, but voter dissatisfaction dropped his job approval into the 20s. Along with the popular Schwarzenegger, at lest one prominent Democrat sought to displace him.
Newsom appears in a far stronger position. In the last 20 years, Democrats have solidified their control of California, winning every recent statewide contest by a massive margin. Newsom, formerly lieutenant governor and San Francisco’s mayor, was elected in 2018 with more than 63% of the vote and remains relatively popular with job approval in the low 50s. The state’s finances are excellent, thanks to tax raises on wealthier Californians enacted under former Gov. Jerry Brown.
But Newsom got a spate of bad publicity for attending a birthday party for a lobbyist friend at a posh restaurant when anti-COVID-19 guidelines barred such events, and he incurred the wrath of some conservatives for closings during the pandemic.
Critics got the required 1.5 million signatures to force a recall vote, but Democrats so far are united behind Newsom. The four announced Republican opponents are 2018 GOP nominee John Cox, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Rep. Doug Ose and Caitlyn Jenner, the reality television star and transgender activist, who is getting help from some former Trump campaign officials.
But the recall, not yet scheduled, is at least six months off — a lifetime in politics. Much may depend on how Newsom and the national Democratic party fare between now and then.
Both Virginia and California seem uphill for the GOP. But if Republicans can manage to pull off one or both, it would give them a big psychological boost going into the 2022 state and congressional elections.