Beset with crises at home and abroad while struggling to quell fierce infighting among Congressional Democrats that threatens the multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure package, the Biden presidency is slowly beginning to circle the drain, setting off alarms in the party establishment over whether the currents will pull in two high profile gubernatorial races in November as well as next year’s Congressional midterm elections.
Biden’s public approval standing has absorbed repeated hits over the past several weeks, falling into the low forty percent range and, in one poll, plummeting to 38 percent. His Administration has tumbled below 50 percent on nearly all issues — the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration, tax policy and foreign policy.
Party leaders are increasingly worried that the impact of the president’s fall from grace on Gov. Phil Murphy’s re-election bid as well as on the race for governor in Virginia could be severe.
Most of the focus has been concentrated on the contest in Virginia — the only state other than New Jersey holding off year election — where former governor, prolific fund raiser and longtime party apparatchik Terry McAuliffe is locked in a surprising statistical tie with Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin, a businessman with no prior political experience, in a state Biden carried by 10 points less than a year ago.
McAuliffe himself acknowledged the potential Biden drag on his campaign, conceding the president is unpopular in the state and he faces headwinds as a result.
Murphy appears better positioned than McAuliffe, holding a lead ranging from nine points to 13 points over Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a narrowing of his margin but, at the moment, a fairly comfortable edge.
While a McAuliffe loss would deliver a body blow to Democrats, a Murphy defeat would be seismic, irrefutable proof that Biden’s perceived missteps, blunders and faulty messaging runs so deep that voters took out their displeasure and frustrations on the closest Democratic target.
Even a split outcome —a McAuliffe defeat and a Murphy victory — bodes ill for Democrats.
Republicans will blame a Democratic loss in Virginia as an unmistakable sign that the Biden Administration has lost the trust and confidence of the American people. It is, they’ll argue, a repudiation of the Biden record of the debacle of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, its stunning inept handling of the unprecedented immigrant surge at the southern border, and most recently his surrendering to the far left progressives in Congress in the dispute over his $4.5 trillion infrastructure package.
At the same time, Republicans will attribute a Murphy re-election to the intrinsic advantage enjoyed by an incumbent along with a one million Democratic voter registration margin.
Over the years, New Jersey has become an increasingly reliable Democratic stronghold. It’s been 50 years since a Republican was elected to the U. S. Senate; the Congressional delegation is 10-2 Democratic and both houses of the Legislature are controlled by Democrats, a political dominance not expected to end anytime soon.
Moreover, since the Virginia governor’s office is an open seat — no incumbency edge — the race pits party versus party, ideology versus ideology.
In other words, the Virginia race is a far truer indicator of a national anti-Biden mood than the New Jersey contest.
Both McAuliffe and Murphy have placed ex-president Trump at the center of their campaigns, accusing their respective opponents as camp followers of the Trump army who still deny the outcome of the presidential election and who, if elected, will turn back the calendar on the progress of social policies.
Trump remains a deeply unpopular figure in New Jersey and Ciattarelli has attempted to put some space between him and the former president, dismissing the claims of a rigged election and criticizing what he argues is Murphy’s pro-tax anti-business Administration which has damaged New Jersey’s economy and produced the nation’s highest average property taxes.
Murphy has continued to enjoy majority support for his handling of the pandemic — perhaps the predominant state issue — and Ciattarelli hasn’t been able to put a significant dent in the governor’s record.
With less than four weeks to election day and early voting already underway, Murphy can simply run out the clock, avoid any controversial action with respect to the pandemic and continue to play the role of public safety guardian.
McAuliffe, an early favorite to regain the office he held from 2014 to 2018, is unexpectedly in the fight of his political life. The White House, according to numerous reports, is heavily invested in his campaign, sending both the president and vice president to appear in his behalf as well as dispatching aides and strategists to assist.
The Administration believes the Biden agenda is at stake in Virginia and a loss there, coupled with the genuine possibility of Republicans regaining control of Congress next year, portends a very bleak future, indeed, for the president.
The outlook is considerably less dire in New Jersey, although an outcome narrower than predicted will take the silver lining out of the Democrats’ cloud and reinforce the negative Biden factor narrative.
Historically, the party in power loses Congressional seats in the midterm elections and Democrats have been in resigned hand-wringing mode as they look ahead, hoping to keep loses at a minimum which they can argue is a moral victory of sorts. Avoiding a blowout seems to have taken priority over retaining control.
The Administration’s circling of the drain is slow, to be sure, and it will be up to voters in New Jersey and Virginia to decide whether it becomes a whirlpool or a tiny puddle.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.