Bellwethers: What about New Jersey?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The statewide elections in Virginia have grabbed everyone’s attention, and for good reason, but another state goes to the polls today as well. Deep blue New Jersey and its gubernatorial and legislative contests have gone almost unnoticed in the commentariat. However, there may be some hope that Republicans can compete in the Garden State, albeit somewhat slim:

In the biggest race, voters will pick who’ll serve the next four years as the state’s governor, deciding the outcome of a heated contest between Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli.

Plus, the entire state Legislature is on the ballot. So are a number of local races — including one involving a major player in the Bridgegate scandal — and two public questions. …

Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking a second term — and to become the first Democratic New Jersey governor in 44 years to win re-election. Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli is aiming to upset and unseat him, hoping to return the governor’s office to the GOP four years after Chris Christie’s final term.

A couple of weeks ago, an Emerson poll suggested that Ciattarelli had gotten within striking distance of Murphy. Not only had the Republican gotten to within nearly the margin of error at 48/52, almost six in ten undecided voters were leaning toward Ciattarelli. If Democratic turnout didn’t keep pace, a surprise win could have been in the offing in a state Joe Biden won by 16 points one year ago.

The other polling in the race has been less hopeful, but still tantalizingly better than expected. RealClearPolitics’ aggregate average only has Murphy up by 7.8 points over Ciattarelli, slightly less than half of Biden’s margin a year ago. One other pollster puts the race nearly within the MoE, too — GOP-leaning Trafalgar, with Murphy up only 49.4/45.2 and the MoE at 2.98%. The other pollsters have Murphy’s lead in the high single digits or low double digits, but none of them have Murphy enjoying the same gap Biden got last year.

Even a Murphy win won’t mean clear sailing for Democrats, Aaron Blake points out, just as a narrow win for Terry McAuliffe will likely still portend a bad midterm cycle:

But again, the point is the margins. McAuliffe won [in 2013], but his win was in line with how Democrats did in Virginia in 2012. Christie, meanwhile, way over-performed in New Jersey. This was written off by many as something of a split decision — especially since Christie was riding high because of some unusual and very local circumstances (huge approval of his handling of Superstorm Sandy). But just as with the 2005 and 2009 races before and the 2017 races after, the relative margins were indicative of what happened a year later.

In total, if you look at which party over-performed in New Jersey and Virginia in the seven gubernatorial Election Days since 1993, five of them went on to flip at least one chamber of Congress in the following midterms. The other two preceded status-quo midterms.

Which brings us to 2021. We don’t yet know whether Youngkin will win in Virginia, but polling averages in New Jersey and Virginia show Republicans outpacing their 2020 performance by eight percentage points in the former and 11 points in the latter. With the notable exceptions in 1997 and 2001, that has meant the GOP would be in line for a good Election Day 2022, as well. And given that the GOP needs to gain only one Senate seat and five House seats to retake each chamber, the party doesn’t need a ton of wind at its back.

So even if Ciattarelli can’t pull out a win, a strong showing in New Jersey by the GOP would signal a very bad midterm coming up for Democrats. But Ciattarelli at least appears to be making it an interesting race in the Garden State, getting close enough (by some measures, anyway) to put Republicans in range. A big GOP turnout, and a depressed Democratic base, might be enough to grab two big prizes tonight.

Don’t count on that outcome, but don’t think for a moment that Democrats are only sweating the Virginia elections. If the Biden collapse reaches as far into deep-blue territory as New Jersey, it will change a lot of calculations on Capitol Hill and might make Biden a lame-duck president in his first year.