Corrected, 7:40 p.m. | ANALYSIS — More than a quarter of the way into the midterm cycle, Republicans are still looking for a signature victory that will signal a GOP wave in 2022.
Republicans didn’t put up much of a fight in the recent special election for New Mexico’s 1st District, and there aren’t any other key congressional contests on the calendar this year. So the GOP must look to the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races for an upset or two.
That’s not going to be easy, based on the recent political trends of each state. But now that all four of the major-party nominees have been chosen, Virginia and New Jersey can take their usual place in the oversize spotlight, considering they are two of the biggest elections in the “off year.”
As the parties shift gears to the general election, we can use the 2020 election results to quantify the challenge Republicans face this November. Then we can look at what the 2021 results might mean for the 2024 presidential race. (Extrapolating gubernatorial results to next year’s House elections is more difficult.)
In the simplest terms, it would be a huge upset for Republicans to win Virginia or New Jersey this year. And the numbers help explain why.
Virginia in November
Glenn Youngkin — the GOP nominee for Virginia governor, though you wouldn’t know that from watching his TV ads — needs to improve on Donald Trump’s 2020 performance in the Old Dominion by nearly 6 points to receive a majority of the vote in November.
That hasn’t been done by a Republican in Virginia since 2009, when Republican Bob McDonnell improved on John McCain’s 2008 performance (46 percent) by more than 12 points to defeat Democrat Creigh Deeds.
Considering that happened in the first year under a Democratic president (Barack Obama) and this is the first year of Democratic President Joe Biden, Republicans could see a glimmer of hope. The McDonnell-Deeds race was a precursor to the 2010 wave, in which the GOP gained 63 House seats, including three in Virginia.
Virginia, however, was a more competitive commonwealth back then. McCain lost by 6 points in 2008 compared to Trump’s 10-point loss in 2020. That’s part of the reason why this year’s Democratic nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, starts the general election with the advantage.
Over the last eight years, Virginia’s presidential and gubernatorial results have been fairly static, considering that each election was within 4 points or less of the previous margin and the GOP percentage has barely budged (45.2 percent in 2013, 44.4 percent in 2016, 45 percent in 2017, and 44.2 percent in 2020).
That means Republicans likely need a Youngkin surge and a McAuliffe collapse to prevail. Inside Elections rates the Virginia race Likely Democratic.
New Jersey in November
GOP nominee Jack Ciattarelli needs to improve on Trump’s 2020 performance in New Jersey by nearly 9 points to receive a majority of the vote in November.
That hasn’t been done by a Republican in the Garden State since 2013, when GOP Gov. Chris Christie improved on Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance (41 percent) by nearly 20 points to earn 60 percent in his reelection bid. But unlike Ciattarelli, Christie was a popular incumbent with nearly universal name identification, running against a lower-tier challenger. And unlike Virginia, the over-performance didn’t translate into big GOP gains in the subsequent elections. Republicans didn’t take over a single House seat in New Jersey in 2014, even though the party gained 13 seats nationwide.
According to a late May poll conducted by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute, Ciattarelli is largely unknown. He had a 12 percent favorable/11 percent unfavorable rating. That means roughly three-quarters of registered voters in New Jersey didn’t know enough about Ciattarelli to have an opinion of him. That’s very different from being a sitting governor standing for a second term.
In 2009, Christie improved on McCain’s 2008 showing (42 percent) by nearly 7 points, which was enough for him to defeat Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, but with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Similar to Virginia, there was a Democrat in the White House for each of Christie’s victories. But GOP candidates in New Jersey seem to be stuck in the low 40s. Trump received 41.4 percent in 2016 and 41.4 percent in 2020, while the 2017 gubernatorial nominee received 41.9 percent. The Rutgers-Eagleton survey showed Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy with a 52 percent to 26 percent advantage over Ciattarelli. The governor also had a 49 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable rating among registered voters. The race is rated Solid Democratic.
Ahead to 2024
So how much will the November results tell us about what will happen in the next presidential election? The short answer is, not much. Christie and McDonnell were elected in 2009, and Obama won reelection three years later. Christie won reelection in 2013, and Trump was elected three years later (although he lost Virginia and New Jersey).
Assuming Ciattarelli wins around 42 percent in November, Trump (or whoever else is the 2024 GOP presidential nominee) would need to over-perform by about 8 points to win a majority of the vote. That hasn’t been done by a GOP presidential nominee in New Jersey since President Ronald Reagan in his 1984 reelection.
Assuming Youngkin receives around 45 percent in November, which is in line with recent GOP presidential and gubernatorial candidates, Trump (or whoever else is the 2024 Republican presidential nominee) will need to over-perform by about 5 points to win a majority of the vote. That hasn’t been done by a GOP presidential nominee in Virginia since President George W. Bush in his 2004 reelection.
So as the hot takes on Virginia and New Jersey start rolling in later this fall, remember that Republicans are going to need a wave of new support to win both races. At the same time, though, remember, there’s a 50-50 Senate and the GOP needs just five more seats to flip the House, so they don’t need a wave in places as Democratic as Virginia and New Jersey to win majorities on Capitol Hill in 2022.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.
This report has been corrected to accurately reflect John McCain’s winning margin in Virginia and the number of House seats gained by the GOP in 2014.