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New York City’s mayor. New Jersey’s governor. Boston’s mayor. And a primary that will surely decide the future of a Democratic stronghold House seat in Florida.
Election Day 2021 is an “off year” across the U.S., and it has mostly drawn attention to the competitive race for Virginia governor. But there are other races across the country that are worth watching — and offer a preview of the 2022 midterms.
Democrats are eying Virginia and New Jersey, the other state holding a gubernatorial election, to get a benchmark for the political environment for 2022, when President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are on the defensive with narrow control of both chambers of Congress. And Republicans are hoping to pick up on a winning message now that could sweep them back into power in Washington in one year’s time.
The Virginia gubernatorial race features a showdown between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin, a first-time candidate and former private equity executive. Despite the overall blue tint of the state, the race between the two men is coming down to the wire.
“I think it could be a template for Republicans who want to win back suburban voters, win or lose, for Youngkin,” said Matt Gorman, a veteran Republican strategist.
But it isn’t just the governors. Several major cities — including New York, Boston, Atlanta and Minneapolis — will elect mayors. Most of the races involve Democrats taking on other Democrats, offering another taste of the looming intra-party battles that will be waged in many states next year.
Here are the races to watch for Election Day 2021:
Fight for Virginia
The decades-old truism of Virginia being a political bellwether ahead of the midterms will be tested once again.
The party that wins the presidential election the preceding year has almost always lost the odd-year gubernatorial election in Virginia in recent decades. The lone exception to that rule was McAuliffe’s own narrow win in 2013.
McAuliffe is trying to beat history again, and he is doing it in a state that has gotten significantly more blue since the last time he ran for governor eight years ago.
Former President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House was disastrous for Virginia Republicans. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, blew his Republican opponent out of the water in 2017 in an election initially projected to be close, Democrats flipped three competitive House seats in 2018 and they took complete control of the state legislature in 2019, each time riding a wave of suburban revolt against Trump.
Next Tuesday’s election will be a test of just how sticky that suburban shift is in the commonwealth, and it’s an early barometer of that shift nationwide ahead of the 2022 election. Democrats have also been battling a persistent enthusiasm gap in the state, and how successful McAuliffe is at turning out his supporters could both determine who ultimately wins in Virginia and offer an early sign of how energized the Democratic base is for the midterms.
In an effort to keep those suburbanites in their camp, Democrats have relentlessly sought to tie Youngkin to Trump, who endorsed the candidate. Youngkin dubs himself a “Virginia First” candidate, but does not speak regularly about the former president.
“If Youngkin is going to get close in Virginia, let alone win, he needs to do well in the suburbs,” Gorman said. “And the people who are going to defend tough seats for Republicans, or win Democratic-held seats, are going to have to compete in the suburbs.”
Youngkin, meanwhile, is hoping to reverse the tide and win back some of the voters who fled from the Republican Party over the last four years. To do so, he has had an intense focus on education in the state on everything from attacking the former governor to promising to fight “critical race theory” in schools, a once-obscure legal theory that conservatives now use to label broader teachings about race in schools.
The two other statewide races are also expected to be close: Democratic state Del. Hala Ayala and former Republican state Del. Winsome Sears are facing off to be lieutenant governor, and whoever wins will be the first Black woman elected to statewide office in Virginia’s history. Longtime Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring — who admitted to wearing blackface in college in 2019, when the state’s top three elected officials were all weathering simultaneous scandals — is facing a challenge from Republican state Del. Jason Miyares.
Democrats are also fighting to maintain control of the lower chamber of the state legislature, where they have a narrow majority after flipping the House of Delegates in 2019. The election will be held on last decade’s lines due to the delay of redistricting data, and the elections could possibly be re-run under a new map next year.
New Jersey’s incumbent curse
In New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy is also fighting the ghosts of elections past. Victory for Murphy would break a 44-year curse: He’d be the first Democrat to win a second term in the New Jersey Statehouse since Brendan Byrne was reelected in 1977.
Murphy — a former Obama-era ambassador who was a top executive at Goldman Sachs — is largely running on his record of progressive accomplishments and on coronavirus policies. He, too, has sought to tie his Republican opponent, former state Assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli, to Trump. The former president has not endorsed in the race.
Ciattarelli has said Murphy’s coronavirus restrictions drove small businesses to closure and has protested his mask mandates for school children. He’s also repeatedly highlighted Murphy's decision early in the pandemic requiring nursing homes to readmit coronavirus patients who had been in the hospital, a move Ciattarelli says led to the more than 8,000 nursing deaths reported in long-term care facilities.
Murphy has slammed Ciattarelli in ads for attending a “Stop the Steal” rally after the 2020 election, despite Ciattarelli’s record as a moderate member of the Assembly and his recent attempts to distance himself from Trump. Murphy is also bringing Democratic leaders into the state, holding a rally Saturday with former President Barack Obama and an official visit from Biden on Monday.
There has been limited public polling on the race, with recent surveys showing Murphy leading by anywhere from 6 to 13 points. Although New Jersey Democrats have a 1 million-voter registration advantage over Republicans, its voters have repeatedly shown a willingness to elect Republicans as governor.
Playing the margins in New York City
The fate of the race to succeed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is all but certain: Democrat Eric Adams is poised to defeat his opponent in a city where members of his party outnumber registered Republicans 7-to-1.
But after a tough primary that pitted Adams against a New York Times-endorsed sanitation commissioner who ran on management cred and a progressive attorney with an MSNBC platform, the nominee is leaving nothing to chance. He maxed out on fundraising, scooped up support from politicians with diverging ideologies and avoided engaging much with his opponent in a televised debate last week.
Given the odds, margin of victory is something Adams will be eyeing after polls close on Election Day. The candidate wants to shore up enough support to credibly declare a mandate as he heads into his first year in office, particularly given the intra-party divide between moderates and progressives.
“Democrat to Republican registration [advantage] has been steadily going up over the last 20 years,” said consultant Chris Coffey, who ran Andrew Yang’s mayoral campaign against Adams. “Not to mention, many Republicans have gravitated to Eric — look at local electeds and donors. So, some chance Eric gets to plus-50-percent or higher margin.”
Adams has been pitching a big tent since winning the primary on June 22, courting business executives and progressives alike. He’ll also be looking to turnout to measure victory, examining whether the far-left Democrats living along the East River in Brooklyn and Queens — think AOC diehards, who make up a small but growing bloc of Democrats — come out to support him despite policy disagreements.
And Adams, who won the primary with the backing of Black and Latino voters in the outer boroughs, has been working to win over Manhattan — the only borough he ultimately lost to primary challenger Kathryn Garcia.
Lupe Todd-Medina, who worked for mayoral contender Ray McGuire, similarly predicted Adams would walk away with at least a 50-point lead over Republican Curtis Sliwa.
“I’m looking for Adams’ margin of victory,” Todd-Medina said. “Also looking to see if he runs away with a trifecta: Earning the votes of Democrats, independents and Republicans.”
The other mayor’s races
In other cities, Democrats are facing off with other Democrats as mayoral campaigns become proving grounds for the future of the party. While many of the races are nonpartisan, candidates have made their pitches to voters along cultural and ideological lines. Public safety, public health and infrastructure are forming the fault lines.
Several cities have set up classic progressive-versus-moderate clashes. Despite Adams’ win in New York’s June primary, Our Revolution political director Aaron Chappell sees a “big year” for progressives in mayoral races from Boston to Cleveland.
Buffalo, N.Y., offers one of the most hotly contested races, with progressives rallying behind India Walton, the socialist who pulled off a primary upset against incumbent Democratic Mayor Byron Brown earlier this year. Brown is now waging a write-in campaign against Walton that has turned the general election into a second primary. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former congressional candidate Nina Turner both traveled to Buffalo to campaign for Walton, who’s also supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who’d backed Brown in the primary, endorsed Walton last week. She’d be the first socialist to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city in two generations.
Progressives have a clearer shot in Boston, where City Councilor Michelle Wu, a disciple of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, leads City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George by anywhere from 25 to 32 points in the latest polls. Progressive pols and voters have flocked to Wu, who’s called for a Boston Green New Deal and a fare-free public transit system. Her opponent, a Democrat who’s considered moderate by Boston standards, has tried to tie Wu to calls to defund the police and blasted her plans as too pie-in-the-sky.
Chappell said Our Revolution, which backs progressive candidates, is also feeling good about Cleveland, where nonprofit executive Justin Bibb is running against City Council President Kevin Kelley, and Cincinnati, where Aftab Pureval, a former county clerk of courts, is running against former mayor David Mann. Both Bibb and Pureval won their primaries.
Crime has taken up most of the oxygen — and airtime — in Atlanta’s mayoral race. Voters will decide whether to trust a new leader with oversight of one of the most politically prominent cities in the South or return to a familiar face. Former mayor Kasim Reed is couching his comeback bid on plans to tackle the city’s nearly 60 percent spike in violent crime by hiring more police officers and pouring into community initiatives. His leading opponent, City Council President Felicia Moore, has separated herself from the rest of the crowded field with a crime fighting plan that places an emphasis on kids, courts and calls; among her campaign promises is a one-on-one conversation with 98 percent of all the city’s police officers.
And in Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder touched off a national push to reform law enforcement, a sweeping city charter amendment that would overhaul the city’s Police Department is shaping the contours of the race. If passed, the Yes 4 Minneapolis amendment would replace the city’s Police Department with a Department of Public Safety that would dispatch crisis managers or social workers to respond to emergencies before police officers. While incumbent Mayor Jacob Frey does not support the amendment, it has the backing of a majority of the city’s activist groups, including his leading challenger, Sheila Nezhad, who was among the primary organizers of last summer’s protests following Floyd’s death.
Nezhad and progressive former state Rep. Kate Knuth have an uphill battle against Frey in Minneapolis. And in Seattle, progressive City Council president M. Lorena González trailed former city councilor Bruce Harrell in a recent poll.
—Lisa Kashinsky and Maya King
Democrats pile on in Florida special
One of 11 Democrats running in a special primary election will take the South Florida seat previously held by Rep. Alcee Hastings, who died in April after a lengthy battle with cancer.
The crowded field jostling for Florida’s 20th congressional district is made up of many well-known elected officials from the area, including three state legislators and two county commissioners. No single candidate has been the obvious frontrunner, meaning the election could be decided by an exceptionally small margin of votes.
The district, which is majority-Black, connects neighborhoods in Broward and Palm Beach counties with a large swath of rural farming communities. It’s a solid Democratic district, so the winner of the Nov. 2 primary is expected to coast in the January general election.
Among the challengers are state Sen. Perry Thurston, state Reps. Bobby DuBose and Omari Hardy and Broward County Commissioners and former Broward County mayors Dale Holness and Barbara Sharief. The top fundraiser is health care executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who poured $3.8 million of her own money into the race and last year unsuccessfully challenged Hastings.
All of the Democrats running in the race would be a reliable vote for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and they have come out in favor of many of the legislative proposals being pushed by Biden and House Democrats. Hardy, however, has come under fire from Jewish Democrats because he has said he supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and because he opposes providing supplemental aid to Israel to help with its missile defense system.
Florida’s special election has the most uncertainty, though it isn’t the only congressional race to keep an eye on. In Ohio, special elections will be held for the state’s 11th and 15th congressional districts seats. Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown won the Democratic primary for the 11th district and is widely expected to sweep her GOP challenger, Laverne Gore, a businesswoman who has run for public office previously. In Ohio’s 15th district, GOP coal lobbyist Mike Carey is squaring off against Democratic state Rep. Allison Russo to replace former Rep. Steve Stivers in a much more Republican-heavy district.