Voters in Virginia and New Jersey can tell it’s election season just by looking in their mailboxes. Not only are they receiving lots of campaign mailers urging them to vote Team Blue or Team Red, but this time around they’re also getting sizable tax rebate checks.
In Virginia, married couples are receiving income tax rebates of $400 (single individuals get $200), along with a note carefully crediting a bill signed by GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin. In New Jersey, it’s Democrats who arranged hefty property tax refunds — up to $1,500 for homeowners and up to $500 for renters.
Many checks have arrived just in time for Election Day. “My administration has delivered over $5 billion in tax relief to Virginians, and we’re pleased that these rebates will provide needed relief to Virginians,” Youngkin said in a statement.
The timing of the rebates suggests the size of the stakes in Tuesday’s elections. Both legislative chambers are up for grabs in Virginia, with Democrats holding a two-seat edge in the state Senate and Republicans with an equally narrow advantage in the House. “We just need one chamber to prevent a Republican trifecta,” Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), told reporters on Monday. “If we win one chamber, that is a victory for the DLCC and its allies.”
In New Jersey, Democrats are likely to keep control of the Legislature, but growing GOP registration numbers and the party’s increasing strength in South Jersey has Republicans hoping they might pull off an upset. “It feels really different,” said Anthony Bucco, the Republican leader in the New Jersey Senate. “We haven’t seen this type of favorable Republican environment in, I would say, 20 years.”
President Biden remains unpopular, but it’s not clear that there’s a dominant issue or even a mood that heavily favors one party or the other. That’s in contrast to 2021, which was a lousy year for Democrats. The party’s nominees for governor ran well behind Biden’s performance in those states a year earlier, which was enough for Youngkin to win and carry his party to its state House majority. New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy barely held on with a three-point victory two years ago, while his party lost six state Senate seats, including the defeat of Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“There’s no one overriding issue,” says John Froonjian, who directs the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University in Galloway, N.J. “This is an election where many different emotional and volatile issues are playing out, but in different parts of the state.”
Louisiana and Mississippi are also holding legislative elections, but the outcome in those states has never been in doubt. In fact, Republicans have been guaranteed to hold their majorities since the filing deadline, since Democrats failed to field enough candidates to have even a numerically possible chance of winning.
One other race worth watching on Tuesday is a special state House election in New Hampshire, where Democrats have won the four prior special elections this year. If they win this contest, they’d be in position to take control, with two more vacancies set to be filled in January.
In Virginia, Democrats have made abortion central to their campaign messaging. Virginia is the only state in the South not to impose bans or restrictions since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. Sixty percent of Virginia voters rate abortion as a “very important” issue, including 70 percent of women, according to a recent poll from George Mason University and the Washington Post.
“If a Democrat isn’t talking about abortion, he or she is committing political malpractice,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “It’s proven to be a winner in many places.”
Republicans mostly sought to dodge the issue in elections last year, but Youngkin and Virginia Republicans have tackled it head on. Youngkin has gotten his party onboard with the idea of banning abortions at 15 weeks, which he describes as a reasonable and acceptable compromise position.
“It’s just like every other campaign in America — when you are attacked on an issue, you have to respond,” Dave Rexrode, who chairs Youngkin’s political action committee, said during a webinar hosted last week by Pluribus News. “If you don’t respond, it sets in.”
Democrats are charging that the 15-week ban is a Trojan horse, with many legislative Republicans on record favoring stricter bans. Although the handful of competitive races in each chamber may ultimately be decided by turnout and local quirks, the results are bound to shape the national political narrative next year.
“If Republicans prevail, you can expect to hear plenty of Republican candidates talking about 15-week bans going into 2024,” Farnsworth says. “If Democrats prevail, you can expect the abortion conversation to be on steroids next year.”
Not only have New Jersey Democrats mailed out tax rebates, they passed a bill in June that would offer much deeper property tax cuts to seniors, although not until 2026. Taxes are a perennial issue in New Jersey, where residents have one of the highest state and local tax burdens in the country.
Republicans have mostly been able to go on offense this year, complaining not only about Democrats’ entrenched power in Trenton but also the recent corruption charges filed against U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez in September.
They’ve attacked Democrats over issues such as wind farms and parental rights in schools, notably gender identity notification requirements. Murphy’s administration has promoted development of wind farms off the Jersey Shore, which critics contend will mar views and hurt tourism. Froonjian says support for wind farms has declined notably in his polling in recent years, but a Danish company dropped its plans to spend $5.6 billion developing wind farms in the state just last week, which may — sorry — take the wind out of the sails of the GOP’s attacks.
Republicans already dominate most coastal districts, so they could see only limited gains on the issue anyway. Parental rights are polling well for them, but Democrats contend voters believe the GOP’s pushed the issue too far. “I am working on banning book banning,” says Britnee Timberlake, a Democratic member of the state Assembly who’s now seeking a Senate seat. “I can’t think of a more fascist thing to do than ban books.”
New Jersey Republicans would have to score a net gain of five seats to win control of the Assembly and six in the state Senate. This is the first election held after redistricting, so lots of seats are open — and the map is not as favorable to Democrats as other recent cycles.
That said, most of the open seats are safe for one party or the other, so Republicans will have to ride a big tide to be swept into power. “There is a chance for the Republicans, but a lot has to go right for them,” Froonjian says.
Virginia candidates are also running in redrawn districts. Partly as a result of redistricting, more than a third of the members of the General Assembly next year will be newcomers. The outcome will come down to small margins in just a few races. CNalysis, an independent forecasting group based in Virginia, rates the House as “lean Democratic” and the Senate as “likely Democratic.”
“We’re talking about two coin flips, really,” Farnsworth says.
But whoever does win will not only be able to set the agenda in Richmond — either aiding Gov. Youngkin in his last two years in office, or thwarting him — but gain bragging rights that will be amplified nationally. Virginia races always get outsized attention, taking place when few other states are holding elections and offering easy access to national reporters based in Washington.
“We know that Virginia can be a bellwether for future national elections,” says A’shanti F. Gholar, president of Emerge, a group that trains Democratic women candidates.
We’ll see what the tea leaf readers end up thinking if Virginia ends up being a split decision.