Tuesday’s elections in states and cities across the country are set to serve as an early gauge of Joe Biden’s presidency and the political environment headed into next year’s midterm elections.
The marquee contest is in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin aims to halt Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe‘s bid to win back his old job. The race will reverberate across the country, as both parties seek to navigate a post-President Donald Trump landscape with control of Congress on the line.
Meanwhile, in major cities across the country, Democrats will be making decisions about the direction of the party in intra-party mayoral contests that pit progressives against establishment figures.
And in Minneapolis, the “defund the police” progressive movement faces a major test.
Here’s what to watch Tuesday:
Virginia race tests national environment
The Virginia governor’s race will be the most closely watched contest of the night, with both Republicans and Democrats viewing the neck-and-neck contest as a key bellwether for national sentiment headed into the 2022 midterms and beyond.
McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, is seeking a historic second stint in a commonwealth that bars governors from serving successive terms. McAuliffe has leaned heavily on the state’s leftward tilt during his campaign, hoping to energize the same voters who helped Biden win Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020. And he has done so by spending millions on television ads that link his opponent, businessman-turned-politician Youngkin, to former President Donald Trump, a political figure who remains deeply unpopular in some of Virginia’s most vote-rich areas.
Youngkin has tried to walk a fine line with Trump: Although he has kept him at arm’s length in the close of the campaign, he has focused on many of the same issues that animated his base in 2020. Youngkin’s campaign has sought to localize the race, hoping to animate a series of grievances aimed at Democratic leadership in Richmond and Washington, from what is taught in Virginia schools to how strict the commonwealth should be in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
Why Virginia matters
Every four years, the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races — one year after the presidential election and one year before the midterms — are seen as a test of the national political environment.
New Jersey is favorable enough ground for Democrats that it isn’t seen as competitive this year. But Virginia could be the most important contest of 2021.
Usually, but not always, the pendulum swings against the president in the commonwealth. In fact, the only recent governor’s race to buck that trend came in 2013, when McAuliffe claimed victory the year after then-President Barack Obama was reelected.
Would a Youngkin win simply reflect the typical ebb and flow of American politics — or would it indicate Democrats’ narrow congressional majorities are in grave danger in next year’s midterms? It’s impossible to know, and the electoral landscape could look very different by the fall of 2022.
But a strong performance by Youngkin would send a clear message that with Trump out of office, the dynamics have shifted, and Democrats cannot rely on their Trump-era gains in the suburbs — which turned Virginia increasingly blue — to be permanent in a post-Trump environment.
Democrats on glide path in New Jersey
Gov. Phil Murphy appears to have a comfortable lead in his bid to become the first Democratic governor of New Jersey to be reelected since 1977.
Barring a remarkable upset — GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli, a businessman and former state lawmaker, trails Murphy by around 10 percentage points in recent polls — the streak will be broken and Democrats will have some evidence that an executive who has championed mask and vaccine mandates will be rewarded for it by voters.
Victory for Murphy will also underscore the difficulty even moderate Republicans have distancing themselves from Trump, especially in blue states, and could represent a counter to Virginia, where the GOP gubernatorial nominee could be on course to outperform the former president. Trump has steered clear of Ciattarelli and Ciattarelli has kept his distance from Trump.
But Murphy has hammered Ciattarelli, whose main message is on taxes, which voters have called the state’s most pressing issue, on his appearance at a “Stop the Steal” rally last year. (Ciattarelli said he was not fully aware of the event’s theme.)
A test of ‘Defund the Police’ calls
Voters in Minneapolis, almost 18 months after the murder of George Floyd, will have the most significant chance to overhaul the city’s police department by casting a vote in a local referendum that is being watched nationally as a test of the “defund the police” movement.
Should the measure pass, the city’s policing would be entirely remade: A Department of Public Safety would be created and if the city continued to employ officers, they would be organized by that department. The city would also dispatch a requirement to employ a minimum number of officers and control of the department would be split between the city council and the mayor.
Nationally, the referendum is being viewed as a test of the “defund the police” movement, a slogan that gained traction in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Republicans have used the movement to attack Democrats, casting them as out of touch and weak on crime. Some Democrats have argued a rethinking of policing is needed in the wake of incidents like Floyd’s murder.
Locally, people on both sides of the issue have tried to downplay the national implications, with opponents arguing passage would not lead to the end of policing in the city and rejection at the ballot box would not mean a blanket statement on the defunding the police.
A new mayor ascends in New York
Eric Adams won the narrowest of contests to become the New York City Democrats’ mayoral nominee. His race on Tuesday will be less dramatic — the Brooklyn borough president is a lock to be elected the next Big Apple mayor.
His ascent, though, is about more than the city, as Adams and his campaign have been touted by top Democrats as a case-study in how the party should go forward — in New York and around the country.
Adams, a former police captain, has sought to portray himself as a working class candidate. And on primary day, working class parts of the city — mostly outside Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn — delivered for him.
While he has been dismissive, and sometimes confrontational, with the party’s left wing activists, Adams has also — on issues like public safety, the centerpiece of his campaign — adopted some progressives ideas about prevention and early intervention.
Other mayors’ races to watch
Beyond New York, here are several other mayoral contests to watch Tuesday:
Boston: Boston is set to make history by electing a woman of color for the first time in a city long dominated by White men. Polls have shown Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, a champion of progressive policies, opening a commanding lead over her more moderate rival Annissa Essaibi George, who also serves as a Boston city councilor-at-large.
Buffalo: Democratic Socialist India Walton defeated four-term Mayor Byron Brown in Buffalo’s Democratic primary in June, notching a stunning victory for the progressive left as she charted a course to become the first socialist mayor of a major American city in more than 60 years. But to win the mayor’s office, she’ll have to defeat Brown again. The incumbent mayor is mounting an aggressive write-in campaign.
Atlanta: Fourteen candidates are vying to replace Democratic Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who’s not running for reelection. The contest is happening amid alarm about the spike in violent crime, as well as controversy over an effort by the residents of the wealthy community of Buckhead to break off from the capital and create their own city. Polls suggest that a large swath of the electorate is still undecided, but the leading candidates — including former Mayor Kasim Reed, City Council President Felicia Moore and Councilman Andre Dickens — have put Atlanta’s crime rate at the forefront of their campaigns. If no candidate receives at least 50% plus one, Atlanta will hold a run-off election on November 30 to decide the winner.
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