The 2017 Gubernatorial Elections: America’s First Electoral Indicator of Trump’s Coattails
The two governorships up for election in the year following a presidential election are the first statewide electoral indicators of mood following a presidential election. If they draw media coverage beyond their regions, it is often for this reason. The 2017 races drew particular attention this time around because they were the first top-of-the-ballot statewide elections following the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017. With no U.S. Senate candidates on the ballot in 2017, the races for governor became major measures of voter sentiment toward the president.
Neither state had an incumbent running for office. Virginia’s governors are prohibited from serving consecutive terms, and New Jersey’s governors are limited to two consecutive terms, which meant that Gov. Chris Christie (R) could not run in 2017.
About the Authors
Jennifer M. Jensen is deputy provost for academic affairs and associate professor of political science at Lehigh University. She earned her B.A. from the University of Michigan and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and in governmental relations. She is the author of The Governors’ Lobbyists: Federal-State Relations Offices and Governors Associations in Washington (University of Michigan Press, 2016).
Thad Beyle is professor emeritus of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Syracuse University and his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. The author or editor of numerous books on the American governor, he has also worked in the North Carolina governor’s office and on Terry Sanford’s “A Study of American States” project at Duke University. He has also worked with the National Governors Association in several capacities on gubernatorial transitions.
A year before the 2017 general election, Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was the lone Democrat who had thrown his hat into the ring. Northam did this early, declaring in 2015, and subsequently other potential candidates stepped aside. For example, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring decided he would seek reelection as the attorney general rather than run for the governorship.1 Northam had a war chest of approximately $2.5 million, bigger than his potential primary opponents, and that would have served him well had he been able to concentrate on the general election while several Republican candidates fought for the primary.
Instead, Northam had a tough primary fight himself when Tom Perriello entered the race in early January 2017. Energized by the November election of Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton, the former congressman began a surprise campaign for the Democratic primary. Perriello did well in early polls and raised over $1.1 million in the first month of his campaign, indicating that he wasn’t a has-been but a viable candidate on the left. Suddenly Northam’s war chest didn’t seem insurmountable.
Elected to represent the sprawling 5th congressional district in Virginia in 2008, Perriello was swept into office with President Obama by a district that tipped conservative. As a member of Congress, Perriello struck a careful balance, supporting President Obama’s agenda, and yet—perhaps aware of the need to balance the liberal leanings of his hometown of Charlottesville with the socially conservative leanings of those in other areas of his district—supporting the National Rifle Association and voting to restrict Affordable Care Act funds to insurance plans that covered abortion.2Ousted two years later as the Tea Party movement swept the country, Perriello moved to the liberal research organization Center for American Progress and was subsequently appointed by President Obama as a state department special envoy to the Great Lakes region of Africa.3
In the gubernatorial primary, Perriello vocally defended progressivism. He affirmed his strong support for abortion rights and said that the NRA had become too extreme. Though Northam’s supporters pointed out that Perriello’s rhetoric was inconsistent with his voting record and pointed out that Northam’s voting record was more progressive than Perriello’s on some issues, Perriello was perceived as the more liberal candidate.
Northam’s background and style—that of a quiet southern doctor who served for twelve years in the U.S. Army—had worked well for him during his years as a state senator. Now facing an energetic and articulate primary candidate who had captured the anti-Trump mood, Northam risked appearing not genteel but boring. Northam, a Virginia Military Institute graduate, was the traditional Virginia Democrat. Perriello, a Yale graduate, was tapping a new Virginia, one tilting left as its demographics changed.
Polling indicated that both Northam and Perriello would win against any of the Republican candidates in a general election. The Democratic primary was tight until the end, but Northam pulled out a win.
The Republican primary race started with no clear front-runner and attracted four candidates. One, Denver Riggleman, who withdrew three months before the primary and did not appear on the ballot. Riggleman was an Air Force intelligence officer before opening a distillery near Charlottesville. The only candidate in the race without electoral experience, he framed himself with voters as a businessman taking on the entrenched political establishment. Riggleman was a likeable candidate with blue-collar roots who ran a positive campaign focused on issues, nonetheless he struggled with fundraising and name recognition in a race with seasoned politicians. Despite its low poll numbers, Riggleman’s campaign impressed Republicans, and in June of 2018 he was selected by his party to be the Republican replacement candidate on the ballot for the 5th congressional district.
Frank Wagner, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, had served in the Virginia statehouse, first in the House of Delegates and then in the Senate, for 25 years before running for the governorship. Wagner ran on a mainstream Republican platform that included cutting regulations and improving the state’s finances. He opposed tax cuts when the state was facing a budget shortfall. Like Northam, he was the type of candidate who would have drawn more attention in earlier times: lengthy legislative experience, traditional Republican issue positions, owner of a ship repair business, and a family man. But in a year where excitement was generated by Trump supporters and Trump opponents, Wagner received less than 14 percent of the Republican primary vote.
Former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie entered the primary as its dominant candidate. Formerly an adviser to President George W. Bush and to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his campaign for president, Gillespie was a seasoned political operative with extensive lobbying experience and deep party roots. He had been the party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2014, nearly defeating incumbent Democrat Mark Warner. Clearly the establishment candidate, Gillespie was the Republican Party’s great hope to reclaim the governorship. In the strange year of 2017, however, he had a bigger fight for the primary than anyone expected.
A member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, candidate Corey Stewart chaired (and then co-chaired) Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Virginia in 2016. When Stewart was removed from this position, his firing was widely attributed to the fact that he had criticized the party for not being supportive enough of Trump’s candidacy. Stewart was the self-styled Trump candidate in the race, campaigning against political correctness and for the protection of Virginia’s Civil War monuments. Throughout the primary he was loudly anti-immigrant. This sort of campaign propelled Trump to the White House, and yet Trump lost to Clinton in Virginia—Trump’s only loss in the South. Stewart’s campaign drew strong support from primary voters, and though he lagged behind opponent Gillespie in fundraising, he attracted wide popular support. The Republican primary became a race between Gillespie and Stewart. Though most polls showed Gillespie widely ahead, the race was surprisingly close, with Gillespie besting Stewart by only 1.2 percentage points. A year later, Stewart won Virginia’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
Download Table A: Gubernatorial Elections: 1970-2017 in Excel.
Interestingly, a year prior, the Virginia Republican Party wasn’t even going to have a primary election; the party was planning to select its nominees for governor and other statewide offices by convention.4 Conventions attract only committed and passionate party loyalists, and in August of 2016, with Trump as the party’s nominee for president, the state party decided to move to a primary. The party—which has used both primaries and conventions to select candidates in recent years—irritated conservative activists with the decision, but the switch protected the traditional party base.
Gillespie, as the conservative columnist George Will described him in the National Review, “is intelligent, temperate, experienced, and happiest when talking about government policies. These attributes are, in the incandescent eyes of his party’s now-Trumpian base, defects of swamp creatures.”5 Gillespie, fresh from nearly losing the primary to a candidate who had taken many plays from Trump’s playbook, courted the conservative wing of his party as he campaigned for the general election.
Gillespie had to navigate a difficult path. Trump had not won the state of Virginia in 2016—and in 2017, Trump’s popularity was hitting historic lows. Yet the conservative anti-immigrant populists who were the core of Trump’s electoral base were alive and well in Virginia. Should he align himself with the polarizing president, or distance himself from him? Most polls after the primary showed Northam ahead of Gillespie by between five and 10 points. As Gillespie campaigned for the general election, he worked to reach the Trump voters he needed to energize and get to the polls, without connecting himself too tightly with Trump’s policies. Focusing on Northam, Gillespie argued that his opponent was soft on crime, including crime by immigrants, and attacked Northam for his stance on sanctuary cities. These attacks became more vigorous as the race progressed.6
When a “Unite the Right” rally drew hundreds of white supremacists to Charlottesville in August 2017 to protest the planned removal of statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park, race became a flashpoint for the gubernatorial campaigns.7 White supremacists held lit torches and marched through University of Virginia campus the night before the rally. The next day, streets were filled with white supremacist protesters, counter-protesters, and police dressed in riot gear. Many of the white supremacists carried clubs and shields; many were armed with pistols or long guns. The images of the torches, marching and violence—including those of a car driving into a crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing one woman—horrified observers across the country. If the candidates had difficulty finessing Virginia’s political divides before Charlottesville, the violent clashes raised the stakes even higher. Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, has more monuments to the Southern rebellion than any other state.
Gillespie—who had earlier stated that he believed that the statues should stay and historical context added, and who had stated that he believed removal was a matter for local decisionmakers—upped his language defending the monuments as the general election campaigning heated up.8 Northam—who had stated that he preferred that the Virginia Military Institute remove its Confederate statues but that the campus leaders should make their own decisions—became more vocal in his opposition to Confederate statues, stating that they should be taken down and placed in museums, where they could be discussed in historical context. Northam also elevated his anti-Trump rhetoric as the election neared.9
Polls showed that the gap between the two candidates narrowed as the election neared. Some showed Northam with enough of a lead to win easily; others showed his lead as within the margin of error. On election day, however, Northam beat Gillespie by nearly nine points. Trump proceeded to distance himself from Gillespie’s loss, stating that Gillespie didn’t run a good campaign—meaning one that tied him more tightly to Trump.10 The campaign was the most expensive in recent state history.11
Download Table B: Total Cost of Gubernatorial Elections: 1977-2017 (in thousands of dollars) in Excel.
The New Jersey race was not as closely watched as the Virginia race, as it was clear it would be an uphill battle for the Republican nominee. Though New Jersey has elected both Democrats and Republicans to the governorship in recent decades, it is a state where Democrats far outnumber Republicans.
The incumbent governor, Republican Chris Christie, was term-limited, leaving an open seat. Christie, once popular both in his state and nationally, lost his charm and support for a few reasons. First, there was his involvement the political scandal referred to as “Bridgegate,” the September 2013 closing of bridge lanes at the George Washington Bridge from Fort Lee, New Jersey, into Manhattan as a means to punish the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie during his gubernatorial reelection campaign. The resulting traffic problems, what the New York Times called “an epic four-day traffic jam,” and then the criminal trials of his staff members for their roles damaged Christie’s reputation.12
Second, Christie was a governor tuned to the national spotlight rather than his own state. He increased his out-of-state travel in 2014 following his election of chair of the Republican Governors Association, campaigning for other governors and laying the groundwork for what would become his own campaign for president in 2016. In a crowded field for the Republican presidential nomination, Christie didn’t fare well, and ultimately dropped out. His out-of-state travel continued for three years, something that wore thin with constituents. Third, Christie’s subsequent endorsement of and close alliance with Trump drew further ire from his constituents in a largely anti-Trump state.
In 2017, Christie’s approval ratings were historically low, hitting 15 percent in June 2017.13 Since 1958, only three governors—two who were convicted of crimes, and one who appointed his daughter to his former U.S. Senate seat—have had approval ratings lower than Christie’s.14 So heading into the primaries, the pool of Republican contenders knew they would face an uphill battle in the general election.
Small business owner Joseph Rullo entered the race early in 2015, but the anti-establishment Trump supporter did not gain traction. Hersh Singh, an aerospace engineer, also entered the race but received little attention. Neither had experience in public office. Steven Rogers, a public service commissioner who was also a Fox News guest contributor and adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, also entered the race.15 Each of these three remained very minor candidates throughout the primary campaign.
The two major candidates for the Republican slot on the ballot were Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman and former Somerset County Freeholder Jack Ciattarelli. Both were considered right-of-center candidates by New Jersey standards, but both campaigns steered far from the conservative rhetoric that flavored Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Ciattarelli, a certified public accountant, earned the support of several major newspapers, including endorsements from the Star-Ledger and the Bergen Record—the papers with the two largest circulations in the state—as well as the Philadelphia Inquirer. Ciattarelli drew support for what were lauded as bold and balanced policy proposals: tax cuts for most residents, while remaining open to increases for the wealthiest residents; negotiating with state employee unions to lower pension and health care costs; and reallocating state funding to school districts.16 Ciattarelli also earned points for having broken with Christie on major issues over his time in the Legislature. In a day where newspaper endorsements mean less and less, however, Ciattarelli garnered 31.1 percent of the Republican primary vote, compared to Guadagno’s 46.8 percent.
On the Democratic side, businessman Phil Murphy’s entry into the race was a game-changer. Murphy, a political newcomer who had spent more than 20 years at Goldman Sachs, promised to commit $10 million of his own money to his campaign. Facing Murphy’s entry, two likely entrants into the primary—Senate President and former ironworker Steve Sweeney, and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop—decided to opt out of the race.
Two Democrats with some traction challenged Murphy in the primary. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, an attorney from Middlesex County who had served in the state Legislature for more than 20 years and who had chaired Bernie Sander’s New Jersey campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, was Murphy’s most prominent primary opponent. Wisniewski promoted a Sanders-like agenda of free college tuition and single-payer universal health care. But Wisniewski’s campaign struggled against Murphy’s deep pockets and strong party support.17
Download Table C: Cost of Gubernatorial Campaigns, Most Recent Elections, 2014-2017 in Excel.
Jim Johnson, undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton administration, made his first run for elective office when he entered the fray, campaigning on ethics reform and cleaning up Newark. The well-spoken son of a church organist, Johnson appropriately labeled himself a policy wonk—and though his campaign speeches were filled with well-developed policy proposals, his low-key style was not pursued as inspiration.18Johnson, who is black, had some natural constituency in the urban areas of a state that is 15 percent African-American.19 Only two African-Americans, Duval Patrick of Massachusetts and Douglas Wilder of Virginia, have been elected governor in the United States.
Three other Democrats also ran in the primary. Attorney Ray Lesniak, a state senator since 1983 and a state assemblyman before that, entered the campaign late and campaigned on issues championed by Sanders.20 Mark Zinna, business owner and president of the Tenafly Borough Council, campaigned on a similar platform.21 Bill Brennan, a retired firefighter, attorney, and as one news article described him, an “irritant to local officials for more than 20 years,” had two previous unsuccessful runs for public office before tossing his hat into the ring for governor.22 The three together did not win 10 percent of the vote in the primary. Wisniewski and Johnson won 21.6 and 21.9 percent of the primary vote, losing to Murphy’s 48.4 percent.
The general election was lopsided as a well-financed Democratic newcomer went up against a Republican lieutenant governor who did not distance herself substantially from an unpopular incumbent. On many issues, the candidates took positions one would expect from their party labels. Murphy supported a $15 minimum wage, legalizing marijuana, and improving the transit system. Guadagno proposed capping property taxes at 5 percent of household income, and stressed the need for improved leadership and efficiency in government. Murphy supported fully funding the state’s share of education costs. Guadagno pledged to expand charter schools.
Murphy won handily, besting Guadagno by 14 points.
Download Table D: Women Governors in the States and Territories in Excel.
Looking ahead to 2018
That two candidates in the Virginia primaries—Riggleman and Stewart—have landed on the 2018 general election ballot for federal races demonstrates how off-year gubernatorial races can be good indicators of political winds. In a state like Virginia, the conservative populist vote is not to be trifled with. Though neither Riggleman nor Stewart won the Republican nomination—and the Republican candidates in New Jersey who were supporters of Trump did poorly—they spoke to the concerns of the Republican white working class and made names for themselves as strong candidates.
On the Democratic side, the liberal progressive wing—in the tradition of Sanders—was a force in both states. One could conclude from Virginia’s election that Trump hurt Republican candidate Gillespie—or that he created a political force in newcomer Corey Stewart. In New Jersey, Murphy’s overwhelming financial backing in the Democratic primary skews some opportunity to use that election to read the tealeaves for the strength of liberal progressivism, but nonetheless it is telling that all the major Democratic candidates in the primary sent strong progressive messages. If these elections provide any signals, it is that voters on the right and the left are mobilized, and the 2018 congressional races and 36 gubernatorial races will be spirited contests.
Download Table E: 2014-2017 Governors Races -- General Election Winners by Party and Margin in Excel.
Jensen, Jennifer M. and Thad Beyle. 2018. "The 2017 Gubernatorial Elections: America’s First Electoral Indicator of Trump’s Coattails." The Book of the States 2018. Lexington: The Council of State Governments. Available at http://knowledgecenter.csg.org/kc/content/2017-gubernatorial-elections-americas-first-electoral-indicator-trumps-coattails.
1 Vozzella, Laura. "Democrat Shakes Up One Side of Race for Governor." Washington Post, January 5, 2017, p. B4. Available at https://search.proquest.com/docview/1855254380?accountid=12043.
4 Vozzella, Laura. 2016. “In Establishment-Friendly Flip, Va. GOP Picks Primary over Convention for 2017.” Washington Post Online August 27. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/in-establishment-friendly-flip-va-gop-picks-primary-over-convention-for-2017/2016/08/27/f87275c6-6bb9-11e6-8225-fbb8a6fc65bc_story.html?utm_term=.365f8c7260f3.
5 “Will, George. 2017. Navigating Trumpian Politics in the Virginia Gubernatorial Race.” The National Review (online). October 26. Available at https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/10/ed-gillespie-ralph-northam-virginia-governor-race-navigating-trumpian-politics/.
7 Martin, Jonathan. 2017. “Charlottesville Raises Tension Of Key Election.” New York Times August 20, p. A1. Available at https://search.proquest.com/docview/1930217425?accountid=12043.
9 Griswold, Alex. 2017. “Cross Country: Virginia's Democratic Hopeful Is Campaigning Hard -- Against Trump.” Wall Street Journal October 7, p. A11. Available at https://search.proquest.com/docview/1947755579?accountid=12043.
11 Nirappil, Fenit. 2017. “Va. Election Spending Smashed Records.” Washington Post December 9, p. B4. Available at https://search.proquest.com/docview/1974483883?accountid=12043.
13 Quinnipiac University Poll, June 14, 2017. Poll release detail available at https://poll.qu.edu/new-jersey/release-detail?ReleaseID=2465.
14 U.S. Officials' Job Approval Ratings (JARs) Database, compiled by Richard Niemi, Thad Beyle and Lee Sigelman. Available at https://jmj313.web.lehigh.edu/node/6. Enten, Harry. 2017. “Chris Christie Is Still More Popular than Governors Who Were Literally Criminals.” Fivethirtyeight.com blog, July 3. Available at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/chris-christie-is-still-more-popular-than-governors-who-were-literally-criminals/.
16 Inquirer Editorial Board, “Ciattarelli the best Republican in NJ primary for governor,” Philadelphia Inquirer (online edition) May 22 (updated), available at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/editorials/ciattarelli-the-best-republican-in-nj-primary-for-governor-20170521.html; Record Editorial Board, “Ciattarelli in the Republican primary,” The Record (online edition) May 26, available at https://www.northjersey.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/05/26/editorial-ciattarelli-republican-primary/350450001/; Star-Ledger Editorial Board, “In the GOP primary, an easy call: Ciattarelli for Governor,” Star-Ledger (online edition) May 14, 2017, available at https://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2017/05/in_the_gop_primary_an_easy_call_ciattarelli_for_go.html.
17 Johnson, Brent. 2017. “Who is John Wisniewski and Why Is He Running to Succeed Christie as N. J. Governor?” NJ.com, May 3. Available at https://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2017/05/who_is_john_wisniewski_and_why_is_he_running_to_su.html.
20 Corasaniti, Nick. 2017. “Profiles of Six Candidates for New Jersey Governor.” New York Times (online) May 21. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/21/nyregion/new-jersey-governor-profiles.html.
21 NJ Spotlight Staff. 2017. “Mark Zinna.” NJ Spotlight. Posted April 30; updated May 7. Available at http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/17/04/30/mark-zinna/.
22 Ma, Myles. 2017. “5 Things to Know about Anti-Christie Bridgegate Crusader Bill Brennan.” NJ.com. Available at https://www.nj.com/bergen/index.ssf/2016/12/5_things_to_know_about_anti-christie_bridgegate_crusader_bill_brennan.html.