Under normal circumstances, the vast majority of Americans wouldn’t blink at the drama of an off-off-year election—2017 isn’t even a midterm, and there are literally zero national Congressional seats being contested. But in the Trump era, the importance of even the minor contests has been magnified, and Americans understand better than ever before how important state and local elections can be. This will likely be the most closely followed odd-year election day in American history, and the media will attribute great significance to the results—too much significance, perhaps, but the fact remains that tonight’s results will be seen as a bellwether for the 2018 midterms, and as a referendum on Trump’s presidency to date.
So let’s get right to it, and highlight the most important races to watch. Starting with the obvious:
1. The Virginia Governor’s Race
A few weeks ago, Democrat Ralph Northam held a comfortable lead over Republican challenger Ed Gillespie, despite being a relatively uninspiring personality. Then Gillespie got divisive, running a handful of racist scare ads about the hispanic MS-13 gang in order to paint Northam as soft on immigration and crime, and Northam capitulated by promising that he’d ban sanctuary cities if it ever became an issue. Whether it was the dog whistling by Gillespie or Northam’s cowardice in the face of the attack (he also removed his lieutenant governor’s face from campaign literature to placate a union that wants a pipeline running through the state), the polling has tightened. As of today, it’s neck-and-neck, with Northam enjoying very slight leads in a state where polls have consistently underestimated Republican support.
The stakes in this race are incredibly high. Gillespie, who nearly lost the Republican primary to a Trump-esque challenger, has adopted the president’s aggressive populism in an attempt to catch Northam, and if it works, it validates everything Trump stands for. Meanwhile, the Democratic establishment is counting on a victory from a dyed-in-the-wool centrist to reverse a series of electoral disasters, starting with Hillary Clinton and running through Jon Ossoff. Much will be made of the result—it’s probably the most important result hanging in the balance tonight for what it says about the country’s mindset a year after Trump’s victory.
2. The New Jersey Governor’s Race
This one has flown under the radar, a little, due to the prominence of the Virginia race. But with Trump reject and beach fanatic Chris Christie deciding to call it quits, the open seat is no less important—as ABC points out, it too has been portrayed as a referendum on Trump, and if Christie’s longtime Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno can defeat Democrat challenger Phil Murphy, it will be more terrible news for Tom Perez and the Democratic establishment. As in Virginia, the Democrat holds a slight lead, but unlike Virginia, it’s the Republican who has mostly been on the defensive—Guadagno has spent most of her time trying to create distance between herself and Christie, who has grown increasingly unpopular with time (hilariously, his last approval rating in the state clocked in at 15 percent).
In the off chance that she can shed that rather enormous albatross, the race could come down to property taxes. Murphy proposes to raise taxes on the wealthy and legalize marijuana for the tax revenue, while Guadagno wants to cut property and gas taxes. But although the race has tightened, it would be an incredible shock if Murphy lost—the latest polls still show him holding a double-digit lead.
3. The Entire Virginia Statehouse Elections
The Virginia General Assembly is divided into a House of Delegates and a Senate, and tonight all 100 seats from the House of Delegates are up for grabs. NBC has the full dope on the race, and David Wasserman makes the point that the results here might be even more indicative than the governor’s race of what we can expect in the 2018 midterms. Democrats currently only hold 34 of those 100 seats, and while they can’t actually win a majority, they are expected to make significant gains. In a bad omen for Republicans, 17 of the seats they currently hold come from districts that went for Hillary Clinton last year, and most of those races are toss-ups. Again, go to NBC for the full breakdown, but check out the scoop on this race in Northern Virginia:
The most sensational race is unfolding in the 13th District, based in some of Northern Virginia’s most rapidly diversifying outer suburbs. Republican Del. Robert Marshall, a 25-year incumbent and an outspoken social conservative, faces well-funded Democrat Danica Roem, a local journalist and transgender woman. Marshall has refused to acknowledge Roem as a female.
Wow. Getting back to the broader implications, the Virginia delegate races have often served as a bellwether for how the next year’s national midterms will go. Per Wasserman, a Democratic gain of more than 10 seats augurs well for the party’s chances to re-take the house next year, while a gain of less than five would be extremely bad news.
4. The Washington State Senate, 45th District, Special Election
Question: Why are millions of dollars pouring into a relatively unknown state senate race in the Seattle suburbs, making it the most expensive legislative race in state history?
Answer: Because the winner will literally determine who controls the state legislature.
When Republican state senator Andy Hill died in office, it left his seat in the 45th district vacant. It also led to a narrow one-seat Republican majority in the state senate, which means that if Democratic candidate Manka Dhingra wins, her party will control the chamber (the lieutenant governor, a Democrat, would be the decisive tiebreaker). Democrats already hold the governor’s mansion and enjoy a majority in the state house, so this would give them total control of the government.
As you might guess from the race’s location in the rich suburbs of Seattle, Republican candidate Jinyoung Lee Englund has tried to distance herself from Trump and campaign on taxes, while the Democrats are trying to link her and the president. Both candidates children of immigrants, and they’re fighting for a seat in a district that went to Clinton in 2016. NPR lays out the importance of the race on a national scale:
With full control of Washington state, Democrats argue the West Coast states could take an ever more aggressive lead in opposing Trump administration policies, especially around regional efforts to tackle climate change. That’s one reason this special election has drawn so much money and attention from out-of-state interests.
At the moment, the Washington state senate is the only legislative chamber on the west coast controlled by Republicans. Dhingra (a prosecutor who runs a nonprofit advocating for the mentally ill) has received heavy donations from benefactors like Michael Bloomberg and climate activist Tom Steyer, while Englund (a former congressional aide and spokesperson for bitcoin) has seen her coffers grow courtesy of Phillips 66 and various Republican leadership groups. In the latest polls, Dhingra leads by about 10 points.
5. The Maine Medicaid Expansion Referendum
This has received almost no attention, but it’s a potentially enormous step for a state controlled by a (truly terrible) governor in Paul LePage. LePage, like many Republican governors, has repeatedly vetoed attempts by the state legislature to take Medicaid expansion money available under the Affordable Care Act. This has hurt countless state residents, but now they have a chance to circumvent and overrule their governor—the expansion, which could mean coverage for tens of thousands of uninsured adults, is up for a popular vote. Maine is the first state in the nation to bring the issue to a referendum, but the problem for pro-Medicaid activists is encouraging turnout in a year bereft of statewide or national races. LePage has campaigned against the referendum, calling it “pure welfare,” while Susan Collins has remained mum, despite her famous opposition to the Obamacare repeals in the Senate.
The national significance here is that 19 states have refused the Medicaid expansion, which has denied coverage to roughly 2.5 million uninsured adults, per WaPo. If Maine can lead the charge to overcome the intransigence of a Republican governor, there’s a chance this could open the floodgates across the country.