Republicans swept state elections in Virginia, winning control of the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, as well as the attorney general and lieutenant governor’s offices.
An even greater surprise is the close race Jack Ciattarelli (R) gave incumbent Governor Phil Murphy in New Jersey. A race many expected Murphy to walk away with.
Republican waves at the state level is not a new trend. Republicans flipped a legislative chamber in 2020, a year they were expected to play defense at the state level, and took advantage of a 19 legislative chamber gain in 2010 to draw favorable state district maps over the next decade.
On Tuesday, Republicans running in state elections continued their long streak of making election forecasters and pollsters look foolish. While politicos watched Glenn Youngkin (R) chip away at Terry McAuliffe’s (D) solid lead until the Virginia gubernatorial race was rated a toss-up by election day, the governor’s race in New Jersey was considered a foregone conclusion for incumbent Governor Phil Murphy (D).
Republicans Sweep Virginia
Youngkin’s defeat of former governor McAuliffe on Tuesday is a wakeup call to Democrats in Virginia. The fact that Republicans appear to have gained seven seats and a 52-48 majority in the Virginia House of Delegates is a bigger surprise than the loss of the governorship, and another huge disappointment after Democrats gained a majority that chamber only two years ago – the first time they’d held a house majority in 20 years. And Republicans’ completion of the full electoral sweep on Tuesday in Virginia is consistent with the overall mood of the electorate with Winsome Sears (R) and Jason Miyares (R) set to become Virginia's next lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively.
Virginia had turned from a purple state to solidly blue over the previous few election cycles. President Biden carried the state by 10 points in 2020 and Governor Northam (D) won the last gubernatorial election by 9 points. The Republican sweep in Virginia might be written off as an odd-year election anomaly. Political commentators pointed to President Biden’s sagging poll numbers as a driver for the tightening polls leading up to election day. However, that conclusion would completely ignore what happened in New Jersey on Tuesday.
Republicans Exceed Expectations in New Jersey
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) had a double-digit polling advantage over challenger Jack Ciattarelli (R) until a slight tightening to mid-single digits over the final week. Forecasters kept the race as a Solid Democratic advantage. The media largely ignored the gubernatorial race in New Jersey. We also focused on Virginia in MultiState’s election preview. So when everyone woke up on Wednesday morning to a New Jersey gubernatorial race that was too-close-to-call, the full extent of the 2021 Republican wave became clear. Virginia might be a purple-ish blue state, but New Jersey is solidly blue. Biden won New Jersey by 16 points in 2020 and Murphy was elected governor by 14 points in 2017.
It looks like Murphy will hold on to the governor’s mansion in New Jersey despite the close election. But Republicans made headway down ticket in New Jersey, where all 40 state senate seats and 80 assembly seats were up for election. There are a handful of too-close-to-call state legislative races still finalizing tallies, some in liberal strongholds, but Republicans will certainly narrow Democratic majorities in the state legislature. In fact, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D), the longest-serving senate president in New Jersey history, is losing his reelection bid to little-known Edward Durr (R).
Trend of Republican Waves Continue
Republican waves at the state level are not a new trend. In 2020, Democrats had high hopes to flip nine state legislative chambers. But, despite Democrats winning the Presidency, Republicans overperformed in state legislative races around the county. Not only did Democrats fail to flip any of their nine targeted legislative chambers in 2020, but Republicans flipped the house and senate in New Hampshire, gaining a legislative chamber overall in a year they expected to be playing defense.
Republican domination of state elections dates back at least to 2010, when the Tea Party wave swept across the country and Republicans flipped control of 19 state legislative chambers from Democrats. The historic level of control of state governments allowed Republicans to draw favorable state legislative districts during that decade’s redistricting process to help solidify that control for the next ten years. States are debating and enacting state legislative maps right now, which will, again, help determine who controls state legislatures until the 2030s.