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    Ground Game

    Three ways the Va. and N.J. races could affect American politics

    Voters cast their ballots at the fire house in Teaneck, NJ, Tuesday.
    Seth Wenig/Associated Press
    Voters cast their ballots at the fire house in Teaneck, NJ, Tuesday.

    It’s Election Day 2017, and most of the contests that matter to New Englanders are local in nature, from mayors’ races to statewide ballot questions in Maine involving a casino and Medicaid expansion.

    Most of the national political attention, however, is on contests for governor in Virginia and New Jersey. Historically, politicos look at this pair of odd-year elections to gauge the national temperature. This year, the results could be more meaningful, given that both political parties are themselves so divided.

    Here are three effects that Tuesday’s elections could have on American politics going forward:

    Can the party of Trump put together a winning coalition after 2016?


    The Virginia governor’s race has drawn the most buzz. Governors there aren’t allowed to run for reelection, so it’s an open seat, and in the last week the polls have indicated a very close contest. The dynamic: Democrat Ralph Northam consistently has a slim lead over Republican Ed Gillespie, but Gillespie has the momentum.

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    Should Gillespie pull off a win, it would say a lot about the Republican Party’s ability to win in the midterm elections next year. After all, Virginia is a swing state where Barack Obama won twice and Hillary Clinton eked out a 5-point victory last year with the help of her vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine. Gillespie has been running in the mold of Trump, even though as a former Republican National Committee chair and former lobbyist his background is that of an establishment Republican.

    Trump has noticed how Gillespie has campaigned, and he has been actively tweeting his support.

    There are many who see Trump’s success with populist politics as remaking the Republican party. There has been an open question as to whether this emerging strategy can win elections, especially if Trump’s job approval rating remains among the lowest in modern presidential history. A win for Gillespie in Virginia Tuesday would say the answer is yes, they can.

    Will Democrats get a win and stop the infighting?

    If, however, Democrats do win in Virginia, national Democrats would feel a big sense of relief. They have lost a number of high-profile special elections this year, and in the last week old wounds from the 2016 presidential primary season have been reopened.


    Indeed, in the closing weeks Democrats have been evenly split about how much to support Northam after he declined to support the idea of making Virginia a “sanctuary state.” Liberal groups have pulled away from Northam over the comment.

    Democrats of all persuasions have been fretting that their candidate has made a number of tactical mistakes in the home stretch.

    A loss in Virginia will only further divide Democrats as they begin to point fingers about who to blame. A win will quiet critics and finally give Democrats something to be happy about this year.

    Will Senate Democrats be on the defensive next year?

    Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s Democratic candidate for governor, holds a strong lead in polling over Republican candidate Kim Guadagno, who is Governor Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor.

    But what national politicos are concerned about is the effect the race would have on the Senate.


    One of the state’s Democratic US senators, Bob Menendez, has been on trial on federal corruption charges since September. On Monday, the case officially went to the jury. A verdict could be announced any day. The feds rarely lose, but either way Menendez is already politically tarnished.

    Should Murphy win, it will mean that Menendez, a Democrat, could resign from his seat next year and a Democratic governor will pick his replacement.

    Should Guadagno pull off an upset, however, it might be that Menendez would hang on in the Senate voting on key bills as his lawyers appeal. (If Menendez is convicted, he doesn’t have to resign. Only his Senate colleagues can vote to expel him from office.)

    It is easy to see how politically awkward the latter situation would be for Senate Democrats, including Elizabeth Warren, who would both need Menendez’s vote on legislation and need to distance themselves from him as they seek reelection in 2018.

    James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: