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Republicans in Virginia, New Jersey take aim at Democrat-held governorships in 2021 election battles


It didn’t take long for the Republican Governors Association (RGA) to target former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who in his new bid to regain his old job convincingly crushed a field of rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Within minutes of McAuliffe’s victory Tuesday night, the RGA derided him as a “career politician and establishment insider.”

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Roughly an hour later, after Jack Ciattarelli captured the GOP gubernatorial nomination in New Jersey, he slammed Gov. Phil Murphy and vowed that the Democratic incumbent who’s running for reelection “will be one and done in 21.”

Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states in the nation to hold gubernatorial contests in the year after a presidential election. Because of that, they grab outsized national attention, and Virginia in particular is seen as a bellwether for the subsequent midterm elections. 

The Republican sweep of both contests in 2009 foreshadowed the GOP wave in the 2010 midterms. And victories by the Democrats in both states in 2017 was followed by the 2018 Democratic surge to win back the House of Representatives. 

The GOP’s pushing to flip both governorships this year, but it won’t be easy, as Virginia – and especially New Jersey – lean blue.

Winner of the Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, gestures as he addresses the crowd during an election party in McLean, Va., Tuesday, June 8, 2021. McAuliffe faced four other Democrats in Tuesday’s primary. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In Virginia, familiarity and electability won out in the Democratic primary as McAuliffe easily cruised to the gubernatorial nomination over three major rivals who were more diverse but much less well-known and funded.

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McAuliffe’s a longtime close friend and adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton, served as Democratic National Committee chair from 2001-2005 and later chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2008 unsuccessful presidential campaign. He ran unsuccessfully for Virginia governor in 2009 but won in his second attempt in 2013. He was barred from running for reelection by Virginia’s unique law that prevents governors from serving consecutive terms.

After McAuliffe’s victory, RGA executive director Dave Rexrode said the GOP “looks forward to exposing Terry McAuliffe’s litany of broken promises and misdeeds between now and November.”

On Wednesday morning, the RGA launched a new website to spotlight what it claims are McAuliffe’s “Record of Corruption, Soft on Crime Policies, and Insider Connections.”

McAuliffe will face off in November against Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity CEO who secured the Republican nomination during last month’s state GOP convention, and who’s been shelling out big bucks – he’s already loaned his campaign $12 million – to run TV commercials the past month taking aim at the Democrats.

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In an appetizer of things to come, McAuliffe on Tuesday night tied Youngkin to former President Trump, who lost Virginia to now-President Biden by 10 points in last November’s election.

“We cannot let Glenn Youngkin do to Virginia what Donald Trump has done to our country,” McAuliffe emphasized. And spotlighting his Republican opponent’s past comment that a significant reason he’s running for governor is because of Trump, McAuliffe stressed, “Glenn Youngkin is running for governor because of Donald Trump. I am running for governor because of you.”

McAuliffe also praised Biden for his “great leadership” and told CNN he had talked with the president shortly after his victory.

Virginia was once a red-leaning state, but Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in a dozen years. Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan election forecaster based at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, noted that in past elections, it “was more common for Republicans to try and nationalize the race against Democrats.”

“This time it’s the opposite in that Democrats are trying to nationalize this race because Donald Trump is relatively unpopular in this state, where as the Republicans are trying to localize the race and paint Glenn Youngkin as an outsider and not necessarily a backer of the former president,” Kondik highlighted.

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Republicans are hoping Virginia voters follow their tendency to elect a governor from the party that didn’t win the White House in the previous year’s presidential election. And Democrats are hoping that their nominee will do what McAuliffe accomplished in 2013, when he became the first candidate in 40 years from the president’s party to win election as governor in Virginia.

“I think McAuliffe starts this race as the favorite but I do think he has the potential to be pretty close and competitive,” Kondik predicted. “You could see a different kind of electorate that’s much more open to voting Republican.”

In New Jersey, Ciattarelli quickly took jabs at Murphy, a Massachusetts native who’s lived in the Garden State for decades.

“Here’s Phil Murphy’s problem: He wasn’t raised here, never went to school here, never owned a business here. He’s somebody else. I’m you,” Ciattarelli, a New Jersey native, said. “I mean, have you seen this guy eat pizza?”

“He’s not New Jersey,” Ciattarelli stressed. “And in January 2022, he’s not our governor.”

And the RGA took aim at Murphy for what it argued are “years of ineffective tax & spend policies.”

Ciattarelli captured the GOP nomination by winning nearly half the vote, with two rivals who spotlighted their support and loyalty to Trump splitting most of the rest of the Republican electorate.

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During the primary, Ciattarelli, a former GOP Assembly member and a certified public accountant who started a medical publishing company, faced criticism that he wasn’t supportive enough of the former president.

Asked if he’d seek or accept Trump’s endorsement, Ciattarelli told Fox News last month that “there’s only one endorsement I seek, and that’s the endorsement of the voters of New Jersey. That’s the only one that matters. So that will continue to be my focus.”

But the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) tied Ciattarelli to Trump and former two-term GOP Gov. Chris Christie, labeling him “an anti-choice, Trump-voting, conspiracy theory-pushing, Chris Christie minion who is way too extreme for New Jersey.” 

And DGA executive director Noam Lee argued that “Ciattarelli spent the primary running scared in an attempt to win over the far-right and now heads into November as an extreme candidate who’s out of touch with New Jersey values.”

Murphy, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary, took aim at his GOP challenger, saying on Tuesday night that “there are some that want to take us back to the way things were before — when New Jersey only worked for the wealthy and the well-connected…We cannot go back.”

Even though Ciattarelli was considered the most electable of the GOP primary contenders, he faces an uphill challenge in a state where Biden topped Trump by 16 points. 

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Patrick Murray, polling director of the Garden State-based Monmouth University Polling Institute, noted that “an election with an incumbent governor is about how the governor has done for the past four years and whether they deserve to be reupped for another four. Based on where we stand right now, the governor’s job approval rating is solid – largely because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Murray emphasized that “it’s an uphill battle for a Republican right now to knock off an incumbent governor, particularly considering the fundamental advantage Democrats currently have in New Jersey with a double digit registration edge.”



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