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How shocking were New Jersey and Virginia, really?

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down what the Virginia and New Jersey elections results could mean for the 2022 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Two things can be true at the same time. First, what happened Tuesday night in New Jersey and Virginia wasn’t a massive shock, historically speaking. And second, that doesn’t change the reality that it was quite bad for Democrats, historically speaking.

As the night wore on, official and amateur left-leaning pundits rationalized their loss in Virginia and the close call in New Jersey (which is still unresolved) by noting the very established histories of these races. The party that’s out of power tends to do well, after all. In fact, 11 of the past 12 Virginia governors have now come from the opposite party of the incumbent president. And even as New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) nail-biter seemed to come out of nowhere, New Jersey has reflected that trend as well, and no Democratic governor there has won reelection since 1977.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell added of Virginia: “It’s a one-term state. They really only want their governors to serve one term. And so you’re asking Virginia voters to kind of defy their own habits by restoring a former governor to become governor again, which they’ve only done once before. … And so what Terry McAuliffe was trying to do tonight has never been done.”

That’s true, but it’s also possible to overstate the salience of both that and the other history involved.

Because Virginia limits its governors to one term, we rarely see former governors running for their old jobs — because that involves coming back at least four years later. No former governor had even been a major-party nominee since that 1973 race. So, while Virginia is unusual in its one-term limit, it’s not clear it’s necessarily a trend to reject former governors.

That stat on Democratic New Jersey governors not winning reelection also misses some key context. Since 1977, we’ve only seen two of them even running for reelection (in large part because the state often elects GOP governors). One was James Florio, who in 1993 succumbed to unhappiness over tax hikes and a building Republican wave that crashed down in the 1994 Republican Revolution. The other was Jon Corzine, who lost reelection to Chris Christie in 2009 on the heels of (yet more) corruption scandals in his state.

In fact, Florio’s reelection loss in 1993 was the first time a Democratic governor had lost reelection since the state adopted its constitution in the 1940s. The fact that two then did so in succession doesn’t exactly suggest this was a bona fide trend.

Which brings us to Virginia. There is a demonstrated and relevant history here. The only time in the last 12 elections that the president’s party won a gubernatorial race there was, as it happens, Terry McAuliffe in 2013. And he benefited from a rather unpopular opponent in then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R).

What followed is what’s important, practically and nationally speaking. Despite McAuliffe’s win, Democrats went on to lose the House in the 2014 midterm elections anyway. His win papered over the looming problems the party was about to have. The very demonstrated history of the incumbent president’s party losing nonpresidential elections continued. That history also bore greatly on Florio’s and Corzine’s losses, which preceded massive GOP waves during the first two years of a new Democratic administration.

That historical trend got some new data points Tuesday night. Democrats might have hoped to beat history more than they did, especially since Virginia has trended blue in recent decades and they had a 10-point cushion in 2020. But as New Jersey showed, arguably even more so than Virginia, sometimes historical trends are overwhelming. It’s just not necessarily the historical trends of voters not wanting to reelect current and former governors.

Ultimately, Republicans overperformed their 2020 margins in Virginia by 12 points on net (from minus-10 to plus-2), and they are overperforming their 2020 margins in New Jersey by about 16 points (from minus-16 to a virtual tie).

History shows that overperformance is on the high side for these races. But it’s very much in the ballpark of what we’ve seen recently — and actually isn’t as big as the last two times these states held gubernatorial races during a Democratic administration. Republicans overperformed by more than 20 points on average in these races in 2009 and 2013.

That suggests that, even in such blue states, this was very much in the realm of possibility — and perhaps even something to be expected, to some extent. The question for Democrats is whether they focus on taking solace in the idea that this was out of their control (as they are wont to do) or they try to do something about it.

They have precious little margin for error in the 2022 midterms, where losing just five House seats or one Senate seat means those chambers go Republican. The deck is clearly stacked against them, but the deck exists, and they’ve got to deal with it.