February 15, 2017
RICHMOND, Va. — A blunt and combative Republican who sneers at political correctness. Insurgent candidates striking populist notes. Establishment figures on the defensive. A former TV star with political ambitions.
The governor's races this year in Virginia and New Jersey are unfolding in ways that powerfully echo the wild campaign for the White House.
There is, for example, Corey Stewart, a tough-talking former Trump campaign chairman in Virginia who says President Donald Trump's victory has freed candidates to "simply be yourself."
"You can be profane. You can be politically incorrect," said Stewart, one of three candidates challenging Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, for the GOP nomination.
In Trump-like fashion, Stewart has coined a mocking nickname for Gillespie: "Establishment Ed." Stewart, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in suburban Washington's Prince William County, also held a lottery to give away an assault rifle and recently protested Charlottesville's plans to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, tweeting, "The left has no respect for our history."
In New Jersey, former "Saturday Night Live" comic and Trump supporter Joe Piscopo is considering a run for governor, possibly as an independent.
Both races are wide open, with Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia leaving office because of term limits.
The two contests are the highest-profile elections this year and are seen by the Democrats as a potential referendum on Trump and an important early test of the party's strength less than a year into his presidency.
Also, the party holds just 16 governors' offices, and taking more of them could help the Democrats influence the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts after the 2020 census.
National groups already have signaled they are willing to pour money into the two races. The Republican Governors Association recently put $5 million into its Virginia campaign account. In New Jersey, regulators expect outside spending to break records.
"Everybody wants to make this a referendum on Trump," said Tarina Keene, executive director NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. "We want to set the stage for 2018 for winning and making sure a Trump agenda goes nowhere."
Republicans have uphill climbs in both states. In New Jersey, Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 800,000 voters. Virginia is more of a swing state, though Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009 and Hillary Clinton carried the state by more than 5 percentage points in November.
John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who helped run Trump's campaign in Virginia, said the Democratic tilt of both states puts the pressure on the Democrats: "If the Republicans win, I think it is a huge, huge message that the Trump movement is growing."
Democrats say Trump's moves targeting immigrants, refugees, abortion and voting rights should help their side, while Republicans are hoping Trump's efforts to create jobs will attract more GOP voters.
In New Jersey, Democratic state Assemblyman John Wisniewski is casting himself as a Bernie Sanders-style insurgent, even though he has been in office for two decades and served as state party chairman. His chief rival for the nomination is Wall Street millionaire Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama administration ambassador to Germany who represents the party's establishment wing.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said he endorsed Murphy partly on Murphy's ability to block Trump's agenda.
"Winter is coming," Booker said. "It is critical for us that we have a partner in Trenton who every day works in concert with us."
Piscopo, who has made a career out of impersonating fellow New Jerseyan Frank Sinatra, plans to make a decision by the spring.
"Donald Trump is a once-in-a-lifetime candidate, lightning in a bottle," he said. "Having said that, the thing that inspired me was the movement of the people, the will of the people."
What level of involvement Trump will have in the races is unclear. A single Trump tweet for or against a candidate could alter the dynamics in a GOP primary, and Trump has already shown a willingness to back candidates in contests presidents typically ignore.
"We will let you know when we have an announcement on either race," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey.