Episode Summary

Every four years, the United States holds its presidential elections. But one year afterward, the states of New Jersey and Virginia hold their own gubernatorial elections.

And for decades, the overwhelming trend in both states has been that the vote for the governor is opposite from the current president’s party. So in other words, if the current president is a Democrat, then usually the Republicans win in both Virginia and New Jersey.

Not all the votes are counted yet, but it looks like in Virginia, the historic trend has held and Republican Glenn Youngkin is on track to be the next governor. In New Jersey, however, the incumbent Democratic governor, Phil Murphy seems like he has broken the historic streak and will remain in office for another four years.

So we’re going to be talking about those trends and how influential they were on the results this year, but another factor worth discussing is the role played by former president Trump in these races. Youngkin try to stay away from Trump as much as possible publicly while also privately trying to work with various far-right groups like the John Birch Society. So is the Youngkin strategy going to be a model for GOP candidates going forward? Or will Trump and his followers demand explicit public loyalty?

Another question to consider: How important of a role did far-right media outlets spreading disinformation play in Youngkin’s apparent victory?

In this episode, I’m joined by Jim Swift, a senior editor at The Bulwark. Swift also once worked at The Weekly Standard, the original “Never Trump” publication, a subject which also comes up in the discussion.

A video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thank you for being here today, Jim.

JIM SWIFT: Matthew, thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. As I said in the intro, people like to say that politics, campaigning, and whatnot is all data-driven, but the reality is politics is fungible. And we don’t really know for sure. Historic trends can always be broken at any moment. But sometimes they’re very strong. Let’s talk about, how much of a role do you think this sort of off-year election jinx, if you will, for the president’s party is.

SWIFT: I’m not one who believes in ghosts necessarily, but societally, there is this knee jerk reaction depending on whoever you elect, there’s always an amount of buyer’s remorse.

And I think what helped Biden very much was Donald Trump was so bad and there were a bunch of Republicans and, I used to work with the Republican Voters Against Trump group, a sister organization to The Bulwark, that was trying to help give people a sense of agency to break out of their historic tribalistic voting practices.

But, you look at this, and we can talk about the campaigns in a minute here, but Terry McAuliffe was literally like the only person in recent memory to break the off-year, one year post-presidential election cycle. And he was gifted with the fact that he was facing a spectacularly bad opponent.

SHEFFIELD: This was in 2013, just for people.

SWIFT: Yeah. And maybe he thought he could ride lightning twice. And the Virginia Republicans, Virginia has gone from a red state to a purple state to now, it’s not really a technical term, a blueish state. And a large reason for that, I think, as someone who has lived here since 2007, is that Republicans have just historically put up bad candidates.

And Glenn Youngkin, I have a lot of criticisms of him, was able to walk that tight rope and get to the other side.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and a similar thing happened in New Jersey, not quite for the Republicans, but if you look at the history of New Jersey, you had a number of Republicans who had gotten elected as governor.

So you had Chris Christie who got elected twice. And then you had Christine, Todd Whitman and and even further back it goes, and so there is, it does, there does seem to be in the case of Virginia. As you said, Terry McAuliffe was the only one in recent memory.

I actually went and looked. It was, it goes back to the 1970s of somebody who was of the president’s party who won in Virginia. I guess you could argue to some degree that perhaps the reason that McAuliffe won was that Obama had won so big in 2008, that he still had some residual — and he won pretty well in 2012 —

SWIFT: Yeah, he did.

SHEFFIELD: — that it’s an interesting thing to talk about him, but we’ll get into that a little bit more, but I guess yeah, as you said, he thought he could capture lightning in a bottle because no Virginia governor has ever been elected twice either, except for one guy who started off as a segregationist Democrat who then later became a Republican. So Virginia, just for everybody’s reference, doesn’t allow governors to run for reelection after they’ve served four years. Now they can come back after they’re out of office and try again, which Terry McAuliffe did.

So he was really up against kind of two major historic trends and thought he could do it, but ultimately as we saw, he didn’t.

Now let’s maybe go back to the– you were talking about how you thought that in Virginia, the gubernatorial candidates that Republicans had fielded were not very strong.

Like who are you referencing? And what years? Let’s talk about that.

SWIFT: Obviously, Ken Cuccinelli is like the model of a bad gubernatorial candidate. But the other thing is, and I don’t want to be mean to my former boss, Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the RNC, where I once worked.

Ed Gillespie is a guy who was born in New Jersey, who worked his way up in politics, like working literally as a Senate parking lot attendant. And and some of the other candidates that we’ve run either at the Senate level or the gubernatorial level, there’s this pandering to the base issue. That just really has isolated Northern Virginians. Like the Confederate statues was one that really sunk Ed Gillespie, I thought. I’m from Ohio, you’re not going to get any argument from me about getting rid of Confederate statues. Ed Gillespie’s from New Jersey. He shouldn’t care either.

SHEFFIELD: And he was standing up for them. (laughs)

SWIFT: Yeah. And it doesn’t seem genuine. And the issue that Youngkin ran into was the same thing that Gillespie and Cucinelli beforehand ran into, which is you have to pander to a far-right, very conservative, rural, Southern base, but you also still have to win suburban voters.

And what Youngkin was able to do, was similar to what Bob McDonnell was able to do. Bob McDonnell, when he won, what was it in?

SHEFFIELD: It was 2009.

SWIFT: 2009. Yeah. Bob McDonnell did very well in the suburbs and two unique issues gave Glenn Youngkin this opportunity. One was Terry McAuliffe had a gaffe at one of their debates where he was talking about parents shouldn’t have involvement over what is taught in schools. It was very inartful, it was overly broad, and it was clunky. I understand what maybe he meant, which is that, when Youngkin ran a campaign ad with a woman from Northern Virginia who’s talking about that her son was forced to read and how triggered he was. Glenn Youngkin picked a family that was very Republican. They weren’t just like your typical family. Her son is now an attorney for the National Republican Congressional Committee. And the book was written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. And it was taught in an AP English class.

What Terry McAuliffe should have said is parents don’t get a heckler’s veto, but parents should be informed over, what sorts of materials are used and taught in schools. But that’s not exactly what he said. He said that parents shouldn’t have a role.

Parents have a role. They get to vote for their state legislators and Republicans believe that education should be controlled by state and local governments, and not really the feds, with the exception of No Child Left Behind, but let’s not get into a hypocrisy wormhole here, but they also get to vote for their PTA. If they’ve live in a city, which Virginia doesn’t have many of them, most of them are counties, but they get to vote for PTA people. They get to vote for school board members. They get to vote for county supervisors and all these other things. But Terry botched this, and then there was this whole other issue of a– that ties into critical race theory.

And then there was this whole other issue about an alleged rape that happened in Loudon County and transgender bathrooms. I don’t think that was as impactful statewide, but it was locally. And Loudon County is a very big, growing county as it were and

SHEFFIELD: And Loudon County, just for people not familiar, is an exurban county in Virginia, pretty far out from DC, but a lot of people live there.

SWIFT: It’s next to Dulles Airport. The growth there is tech because there’s a big tech truck line that goes there. It used to–

SHEFFIELD: Amazon has a big server farm in that area.

SWIFT: It used to be like a “NIMBY” horse country county that wanted to restrict its growth because they wanted to preserve the wealth.

But now, once you pass Dulles Airport, it doesn’t look any different than Springfield or Alexandria or anything else. It’s just soulless townhomes row after row that, you could place anywhere.

SHEFFIELD: Well, And just to set the scene a little bit for people not familiar. So one thing that’s interesting about Virginia Republican politics, as opposed to any other state’s politics, is that pretty much every Republican operative lives in Virginia. Having been a Republican operative who lived in DC, it was always uncanny to me just how few people who worked in Republican politics lived in Maryland or in DC. And so any Republican politician who is in Virginia, has just this surfeit of Republican pundits and operatives and think tankers who want to get involved with their campaign. And that’s and that’s probably, I guess that’s probably you saw that as well in your own experience, right?

SWIFT: Yes. And my native Ohio is home to astronauts, but Virginia is home to Republican pundits.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Pretty interesting. And that’s not something discussed in the national political media, so I wanted to just put that out there for everybody.

And it is an important factor with some of these past Republican candidates because Ken Cuccinelli, whom you mentioned, and Ed Gillespie, they were part of this Republican consultant tribe or mob, if you will, that really has a stranglehold on Republican politics.

And in the case of Cuccinelli, he was more of the far-right tribe of Republican consultants, but he was able to leverage that into getting the nomination, and Ed Gillespie was more of the, we’ll say Chamber of Commerce type Republican. And there are a lot of those in Republican politics as well.

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