Governing Principles

November 7, 2017 will give us the clearest indication yet of whether the Democratic Party has its groove back. If the party wins the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections, it will demonstrate that Democrats still have plenty of fight left in them.

Remember how the mainstream media hyped the Republican victories in those two elections in 2009, proclaiming that the respective wins of Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie were evidence that the GOP had not yet been thrown into the dustbin of history? If Democrats go over in both contests next November, one wonders if the party will receive similar hosannas from the press. (Probably not.)

The Washington Post noted last month that things could get tricky for the GOP’s minions in the Old Dominion:

Trump’s loss in Virginia could benefit Republican candidates who kept their distance from the presidential candidate. That number includes Ed Gillespie, the best known of the four who have declared so far. The others in the race [besides Corey Stewart, the former chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign, are] U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman and state Sen. Frank Wagner. [Wittman dropped out on Thursday.]

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states holding gubernatorial races next year. In New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie (R) will leave office because of term limits, the Republican brand has been tarnished by the Bridgegate scandal, analysts say.

That makes Virginia the first real test to be faced by a Republican Party in the coming Trump era. In a quandary that mirrors the national GOP’s, the state party will have to contend with a three-way fracture between the establishment wing, Trump supporters and the tea party.

One great unknown — how well Trump governs — looms over all of it. But his victory is already shaping the issues on the front burner, the candidates and the people who ultimately will turn out to vote…

Trump’s victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton means her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, will not vacate his Senate seat…Democrats — Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) chief among them — had been counting on a Senate contest next year to energize Washington-oriented Democrats in Northern Virginia, who have helped turn the state blue for the past three presidential elections but do not turn out as faithfully during off-year elections. A Senate race would have greatly boosted prospects for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, so far the only Democrat running to succeed the governor, McAuliffe said.

Of course, if Northam–or whoever becomes the Democratic nominee–effectively makes the point that the Republican opponent will bend over backwards not to offend President Prejudice (a la Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker), then perhaps the off-year turnout problem won’t be as much of a problem this time around. The Republican candidate, whoever it is, simply cannot be trusted to stand up to Trump; we shall see if the Democratic nominee and the Democratic Party can communicate this concept in a compelling fashion next year.

As for New Jersey, the outcome of that race will be of keen interest to Democratic climate hawks in particular. Christie infamously yanked the state out of the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in May 2011; in his announcement, Christie actually conceded that human-caused climate change was real, but falsely declared that RGGI wasn’t getting the job done on emissions. (In September 2011, investigative journalist Brad Friedman revealed that Christie pulled out of RGGI after, shall we say, a bridge-building meeting with David Koch.) The Democratically-controlled New Jersey legislature has made efforts to have the Garden State rejoin RGGI; presumably, those efforts would be easier if Christie were to be succeeded by a governor who hadn’t decided to place his lips on Koch’s backside. (Considering the damage that Superstorm Sandy did to New Jersey four years ago–damage that presumably wasn’t limited to Democratic residents of the state–you’d figure even the Republican contenders would have some semi-reasonable position on climate…but does anyone seriously believe that will happen in the Trump era?)

Hillary Clinton scored a moral victory on November 8, 2016. Will Democrats score electoral victories on the eve of the first anniversary of that contest? We’ll know soon enough.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.