RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia and New Jersey are set to pick new governors Tuesday in what could be a telling referendum on Republican President Donald Trump's political popularity a year after he was elected.
Democrats in both states have tried to tie their opponents to the president and are eager to prove they can harness anti-Trump energy into success at the polls. Republicans are looking to show they have a winning blueprint in blue-leaning states. Trump lost both states in last year's presidential race and has not campaigned in either contest.
Tuesday's results could impact how both parties run campaigns in next year's midterm election, when control of Congress and numerous statehouses are up for grabs.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama administration ambassador to Germany, holds a double-digit lead in most polls over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. The Garden State is reliably Democratic, but has twice elected Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Christie is term-limited from running again.
The race in swing state Virginia is much closer, with most polls showing a tight contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. A former conservative bastion, Virginia has been trending more liberal in recent years and Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009. It was the only Southern state Trump lost last year.
THE TRUMP EFFECT
Unlike other high-profile elections this year, Trump has kept out of both races except for a few tweets in support of Gillespie.
But he's still been a dominant factor in the race. Democrats have tried to cast both gubernatorial contests as a way for voters to send a message against Trump. Northam has dubbed Gillespie, a former Washington lobbyist and Republican National Committee chairman, as "Trump's lobbyist."
Murphy has promised to appoint an attorney general who'd fight the White House over immigration policy and called on voters to elect him as a check on Trump.
On the Republican side, both Gillespie and Guadagno have kept Trump at an arm's distance while mimicking his policies on certain social issues. In particular, both have pledged tougher policies for immigrants in the country illegally and blasted their Democratic opponents for support of so-called sanctuary cities. Gillespie has criticized Northam for favoring the removal of the state's Confederate monuments.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR REPUBLICANS
A Republican sweep or even very strong showings would be a huge morale boost for a party whose officials have openly fretted about their electoral prospects next year.
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has cheered Gillespie's embrace of the Trump agenda, saying it shows a way for Republicans to succeed in future elections. Other Republicans have been highly critical of Gillespie's campaign, accusing him of abandoning his big-tent principals.
Gillespie's performance could heavily influence how other establishment Republicans campaign next year, either as a model to emulate or avoid.
A Guadagno loss in New Jersey means the GOP will drop from controlling 34 to 33 governorships. It would also leave Republicans totally out of control in state government, with the Legislature expected to remain in Democrats' hands.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR DEMOCRATS
Democrats are also looking for a positive turn as they struggled with continuing recriminations about last year's presidential election. Democrats have also been unable to win any of the congressional special elections held this year, despite heavy spending in some of those contests.
Losses Tuesday would likely demoralize the party and lead to greater friction. Northam has already faced criticism from a variety of liberal activists for his campaign, with complaints often saying his minority outreach effort hasn't been as effective as it should have been.
A loss in New Jersey would be particularly devastating, as the party has nearly 900,000 more registered voters than the GOP and Christie is historically unpopular.
WHAT ELSE IS AT STAKE?
The next Virginia governor will have a key say during the redistricting, when the state redraws its congressional and legislative boundaries. Republicans currently control both chambers of the General Assembly, and a Gillespie victory would give the GOP significant leverage when drawing the lines.
New Jersey's governor is one of the most powerful in the country, appointing the entire state Cabinet, prosecutors, judges and a host of commission officials including state's transit and turnpike agencies. There's also the chance that the next governor could appoint an interim U.S. senator if Democrat Bob Menendez's seat becomes vacant as part of the corruption trial against him.
A Murphy victory could also entail legalized marijuana, which he has promised and the Legislature has indicated it supports.
Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey.