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Dems’ wins in Virginia, New Jersey and NYC are meaningful if not ‘harbingers’

REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Virginia Democratic candidate for governor Ralph Northam speaking at his election night victory party.

In addition to Minneapolis and St. Paul (which are covered elsewhere on MinnPost) elections were held last night in two states and one big city plus a special U.S. House election. The results were mostly good, maybe even very good, for Democrats.

My previous post already warned against the tendency of political junkies to treat these few off-year elections as “harbingers” of results to come in the big even-numbered year elections. But they are more meaningful than all the polls being run because at least in Virginia, New Jersey and New York City the winning governors and mayor actually won a four-year term, and all three were Democrats.

(The special House election, to fill the unexpired portion of a U.S. House term created by the resignation of the retiring Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, led to the easy election of Provo Mayor John Curtis, a conservative Republican.)

The re-election of a Democratic mayor in New York (Bill de Blasio) and a Republican in Utah are so predictable they are not exactly news of partisan importance. The governorships of Virginia and New Jersey are a different story as both are more or less swing states. Those were the two marquee matchups of the evening, and Democrats won both.

In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy waltzed to a solid 56-42 percent victory, which had long been predicted by the polls. A Wall Street player and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, Murphy was making his first run for elective office. He defeated Republican Kim Guadagno, who had been New Jersey’s secretary of state and lieutenant governor. If there’s any harbinger effect here, it might be that Democrat Murphy replaces Republican Gov. Chris Christie, but Christie had been extremely unpopular of late. New Jersey might called a swing state, but it’s pretty blue.

In the Virginia race for governor, Democratic Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician by profession with a strong résumé and soft-spoken style, cruised to a somewhat surprising 54-45 percent victory over former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie.

Northam succeeds retiring Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, so Northam’s win doesn’t represent a pickup for the Dems. Virginia, thanks to the growth of the D.C. suburbs, has become the bluest of the southern states, and the only thing that might make Northam’s margin surprising is that some recent polls had suggested Gillespie was making a late surge.  

Some will also spin the Virginia result as a rejection of Trumpism, but that’s old news in Virginia, which Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by 50-44 percent. Trump’s favorability ratings in the state have been very unfavorable (recently 60 unfavorable, 34 percent favorable).

Democrats will surely hail the night as evidence of momentum, and perhaps 2018 will back that up. But it will mean relatively little unless and until they do.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/08/2017 - 11:59 am.


    For what little it’s worth, I’ll characterize the governorship results as “interesting.”

    No predictions will be forthcoming from this front regarding “what it all means” for 2018, though I’m happy to see Gillespie have to (perhaps) get a real job. I’m less excited by Murphy’s win in New Jersey, largely because of my prejudice against “Wall Street player[s].” We’ll have to see if he’s just as much in the pocket of wealthy interests as his predecessor, but I’m not assuming he’ll lead a campaign against “people of money,” since my assumption is that he won, in part, at least, because of some of those very people.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 11/08/2017 - 12:53 pm.

    Popular vote

    All these elections were decided directly by voters – one side against the other. Democrats won their areas, Republicans theirs. The close votes we’re Virginia and and the Maine health insurance votes, where Trump enhanced the progressive vote total. The thing that was not a harbinger was Trump’s Electoral College victory. He lost the popular vote by three million votes even with voter suppression and the help of Putin. We are reminded again that only individual voters should decide elections. When the votes of Wyoming have 30 times the weight as votes as votes as California, this will happen. When the Constitution was adopted, states were of much more equal size and the people didn’t directly elect Senators. The elimination of the Electoral College is about 100 years overdue, but small rural states can and will oppose the elimination of the power it give them. Democrats are just going to have to earn larger landslides to avoid the repeat of a Trump-style President.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/08/2017 - 03:20 pm.

      Well, sort of

      I agree with your main point: the electoral college is decades past any point of usefulness except to political professionals (and the Trump campaign obviously employed several) who can make it their business to see that the popular vote doesn’t really decide an election after all.

      That said, when the Constitution was adopted, popular representation wasn’t quite as simple as it seems, or the states quite as close to being equal as it might seem from this historical distance. When the Constitution was adopted, Virginia was, by far, the largest state, both in land area (66,813 sq. mi.) and population (747,610 in 1790). Rhode Island, at the other extreme, covered just 1,212 sq. mi. (Hennepin County alone is 607 sq. mi.), with a population of 68,825 in 1790. No, it doesn’t match the comparison of Wyoming and California, but it does mean (and did then, too) that a Rhode Island vote, at least in some circumstances, counted about as much as 10 Virginia votes in 1790.

      It’s further complicated by the infamous “three-fifths compromise,” whereby a slave was counted as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation in Congress, despite the obvious fact that slaves were not allowed to read, much less vote or hold office, and, in 1790, women were likewise excluded from voting. Virginia’s population of “free, white males,” the only people who could vote at that time, was 110,936, further reduced by the fact that the category included males “16 and older.” Since the franchise was limited to those aged 21 and older at the time, Virginia’s population of “free, white males” of voting age was surely less than 100,000, though I haven’t researched the exact figure.

      Before getting bogged down in details, however, my main point is simply to add that, while some of the states may have been **more** equal in size than some states are now, disparities in geographic size and population were pretty graphic then, as well.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/08/2017 - 10:24 pm.

      “When the votes of Wyoming have 30 times the weight as votes as votes as California.” What do you mean?

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 11/08/2017 - 06:01 pm.


    So yesterday you were” not an election hawk prognosticator” and now you are a “moderate election prognosticator?”

  4. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 11/08/2017 - 09:24 pm.

    If there is a harbinger…

    wouldn’t it be in the Dems remarkable showing in the Virginia House of Delegates elections, where they flipped way more seats than anyone, including the Dems, predicted. Before the election, the GOP controlled 66 or the 100 seats. The Dems have increased their seats from 34 to 48, with several races in recount.

  5. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 11/09/2017 - 12:29 pm.

    Beware Harbingers

    Strong results in largely favorable areas do not mean the Dems just have to show up to make big gains in 2018 and 2020. The Party leadership needs to stop thinking they can continue as a Clintonite party, insulated from the concerns of real people, and waltz into power. There is more than ever need for a real Dem party – not far left, of course, but uncompromisingly on the side of social justice, inclusion, working and middle class people, health care for all, and the environment.

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