Republicans Find Post-Trump Formula to Battle for Exurban Voters
(Bloomberg) -- Republican candidates in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday not only kept former President Donald Trump’s share of votes -- but took more -- especially in the crucial swing vote exurbs.
In Virginia, Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, a former co-chief executive officer of Carlyle Group Inc., surpassed Trump’s vote share in all 133 election jurisdictions, helping him turn Trump’s 10-point loss to President Joe Biden a year ago into a 2-point Republican win over former Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Similarly in New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli, currently locked in a race too close to call with incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, improved on Trump’s vote share in 20 of the states’ 21 counties.
Tuesday’s results suggest that opposition to Trump alone won’t be enough to convince voters to return a Democratic majority to Congress in mid-term elections next year. Instead, Democrats have to contend with Biden’s low approval ratings as a headwind.
Youngkin energized his party’s pro-Trump base without alienating independent voters. He improved his standing among Biden voters by 5 percentage points, while keeping almost all of Trump’s voters, according to CNN exit polls.
The Republican won independents, households with children under 18, White men and White women, whom he particularly improved on over Trump.
Youngkin’s gains came most notably in the exurban counties of Northern Virginia, where the state’s most dramatic demographic transformations are taking place.
In Loudoun County, which has grown 35% over the past decade as government contractors and data centers have taken root there, Youngkin cut Trump’s losses in half. But he also benefited from a larger-than-average turnout decline there, robbing McAuliffe of a cache of Democratic votes.
Loudoun, about 40 miles northwest of Washington, has been the center of some of the most pitched school board battles this year, with controversies over mask requirements and sexual assault allegations on schools.
Education became the defining issue in the last days of the campaign, with Youngkin seizing on a debate comment by McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach.
About 24% of Virginia voters identified education as the most important issue, and those voters opted for Youngkin, 55% to 44%. He also won among voters citing taxes, the economy and abortion as their top issues, even as voters overwhelmingly trusted McAuliffe more on dealing with Covid-19.
In New Jersey, taxes were the defining issue. Ciattarelli hammered Murphy with attack ads featuring a 2019 comment that “if you’re a one-issue voter, and tax rate is your issue, we’re probably not your state.”
The Democratic stronghold of Essex County, home of Newark and the second most populous county in New Jersey, saw Murphy’s support erode by seven percentage points since he was first elected governor in 2017.
Murphy’s support slipped the most in northern tier suburban communities south of Route 3. In the commuter township of Nutley, for example, Murphy went from 55% of the vote four years ago to 46% as of Tuesday -- while turnout increased 20%.
Indeed, turnout seemed to benefit the Republican more often than not. In Essex County, turnout was up 29.6% in communities Ciattarelli was winning. In communities led by Murphy, turnout was down 11.5%.
But that enthusiasm gap has long been a defining feature of the year after a presidential election.
“Off-year elections often favor the party out of power -- especially when the president is unpopular -- and that largely set the stage for what happened,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “If Donald Trump were still in the White House, my guess is that Democrats would have held the Virginia governorship, and it probably wouldn’t have been close.”
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