The Races We’re Watching in 2021

A collage featuring various Democratic 2021 candidates including gubernatorial nominees Terry McAuliffe (VA) and Phil Murphy (NJ), candidate for Virginia Lieutenant Governor Hala Ayala, and Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu

2021 may be an “off” year for elections after the electoral gauntlet that was 2020, but that doesn’t mean the elections that are happening are any less important. Elections for state and local offices influence the direction of public policy — with life-changing consequences for many people — and provide clues about the political direction of the country and trajectories of both major political parties. In today’s piece, we’re highlighting some of the most important races on the ballot this year.

Virginia and New Jersey will hold their state general elections.

Virginia and New Jersey are two of the few states that hold elections for state officials in odd-numbered years. Voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the Democratic trifectas in both states and the results will have huge implications for public policy over the next four years. The elections also represent major tests of the political environment going into next year’s midterms. Because elections have become so nationalized in the U.S., how Democrats do in New Jersey and Virginia will provide some early clues for how voters feel about the Biden administration and the Democratic majority in Congress.

Virginia

Two years ago, Democrats clinched a trifecta in the Old Dominion for the first time in a generation by winning control of the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate. Since then, Virginia Democrats have ratcheted up a long list of policy accomplishments, including a significant expansion of access to voting and a state-level voting rights act that took Virginia from the second hardest state to vote to one of the easiest. On Nov. 2, voters will go to the polls to elect a new governor to replace term-limited Gov. Ralph Northam (D). The offices of lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as all 100 seats in the House of Delegates, will also be on the ballot. The Virginia Senate is not up for election until 2023.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is running for reelection to his old job (Virginia is the only state that prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms). His opponent, businessman Glenn Youngkin (R), has tried to walk a tightrope between maintaining loyalty to Trump without alienating voters in Virginia’s rapidly-growing and diversifying suburbs. He’s acknowledged President Biden’s victory while calling for election audits — indeed, his only substantive policy proposal for most of the campaign has been to create an “election integrity commission.” Youngkin has also signaled support for rolling back gun-safety laws Virginia enacted after a 2019 shooting in Virginia Beach, limit abortion access and called Virginia’s Medicaid expansion “sad.”

Meanwhile, the lieutenant governor race is between Delegate Hala Ayala (D) and former delegate Winsome Sears (R). Either woman would be both the first woman and first woman of color to serve in the post. In the final statewide race on the ballot, incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring (D) is running for reelection. Herring was first elected Attorney General in 2013 (the same time McAuliffe won his first term).

Voters in Virginia face a stark choice: they can continue the substantial progress of the last two years or elect a governor willing to indulge Trump’s unfounded claims about the 2020 election. While Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2009, the elections in the Old Dominion are the most competitive on the ballot this year and the GOP could win under the right circumstances. With many of the same issues popping up in the Virginia races as in national politics — like vaccine mandates, critical race theory and public safety — what happens in Virginia will both be a test of how blue the state is and may have ramifications for how the parties approach the midterms next year.

New Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is up for reelection, along with all 80 members of the New Jersey General Assembly and all 40 members of the New Jersey Senate. Although New Jersey has a history of electing Republicans to the governorship, the state’s strong Democratic lean and Murphy’s solid approval numbers make him a favorite against Republican Jack Ciattarelli. Likewise, Democrats are expected to maintain control of the General Assembly.

Upon Murphy’s election in 2017, the Democrats won full control of New Jersey’s state government for the first time since 2009. Among the policies enacted since then include a minimum wage increase, paid family leave, cannabis legalization and decriminalization, equal pay and investment in clean energy. Reelecting Murphy is essential to continue building on these improvements and make a stronger and fairer Garden State.

Ohio has a pair of special elections to the House of Representatives and primary voters in Florida are picking their candidates for a Jan. 11 special.

On Nov. 3, voters in two congressional districts in Ohio will elect new members of Congress and Florida is holding partisan primaries for a special election next year. The special elections follow earlier elections this year to fill House vacancies in Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas. None of the House seats contested so far have switched between the parties — a streak the Ohio elections are not expected to break — and the results will not have any impact on which party controls the House. However, the results, especially the margin between Democrats and Republicans, may provide important clues about the national political environment going into the midterms next year. When averaged all together, the results of special elections are historically predictive of which party will have an edge in the next election.

Ohio’s 11th District

Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which includes most of the black-majority precincts between Cleveland and Akron, became vacant when incumbent Rep. Marcia Fudge (D) resigned to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Biden Cabinet. Primary elections were held on Aug. 3, with Shontel Brown (D), a member of the Cuyahoga County Council, winning a close nomination race against Sen. Bernie Sanders’ ally Nina Turner (D). Brown will face 2020 Republican nominee Laverne Gore in the general election and is expected to win easily, as Fudge won in 2020 with over 80% of the vote.

Ohio’s 15th District

The 15th District, based south of Columbus, will also elect a new member due to the resignation of incumbent Rep. Steve Stivers (R). The Aug. 3 primary was an early test of Trump’s continued influence over the GOP, as the candidate he endorsed, Mike Carey, easily prevailed over several others, including state Rep. Jeff LaRe who had been endorsed by Stivers and a host of local Republican officeholders. Carey is running as a strong supporter of Trump and has highlighted his support for the fossil fuel industry, banning critical race theory in public schools, cracking down on the southern border and criminalizing abortion.

Carey faces state Rep. Allison Russo (D) in the general election. The special election in Ohio’s 15th District has the potential to be more competitive than the one in the 11th, as the 15th is less conservative than some other Ohio districts. Trump only won 56% of the vote in 2020 and the district has historically elected moderate Republicans to office. Even if Carey wins, a strong performance from Russo may be a good sign for Democrats heading into next year, although you shouldn’t infer too much from any single special election.

Florida’s 20th District

Florida’s 20th District has been vacant since incumbent Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) died of pancreatic cancer in April. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) faced criticism for waiting over a month to schedule the special election and for picking a date that will leave the seat vacant for over nine months. 11 Democrats are running in the Nov. 2 primary and whoever wins is almost assured of victory in the Jan. 11 general election, as the district is one of the safest for Democrats in the entire state. Major fault lines in the primary have emerged over the Democratic Party’s reconciliation agenda and the Biden administration’s treatment of Haitian migrants on the southern border.

Pennsylvania will hold a few critical judicial elections.

39 states select at least some of their state judges through elections. However, judicial elections often receive less attention from voters and the media despite the considerable power judges hold. One state that will have a few such judicial elections this November is Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania, judges are initially elected to first terms in contested partisan elections. After serving a 10-year term, they run in non-partisan, retention elections — where voters only have the option to vote yes or no on whether the judge should remain in office for another term.

Even though judicial elections often fly under the radar, the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania demonstrated how critical judicial elections can be. Elected judges in Pennsylvania played a vital role in turning back the Trump campaign’s myriad of legal challenges to the state’s election results. The aftermath of the 2020 election may have gone very differently had different judges been in place back then.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court

There is an open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court thanks to the retirement of Chief Justice Thomas Saylor (R). Maria McLaughlin (D), a member of the Superior Court since 2017 is running against Kevin Brobson (R), a member of the Commonwealth Court. The Court, currently made up of five Democrats and two Republicans, has become increasingly controversial in recent years. The Democratic majority has issued important rulings against partisan gerrymandering and allowing emergency changes to voting laws. The Court also rejected many of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits.

Brobson decided several high-profile cases involving the 2020 election as a member of the Commonwealth Court. In one GOP attempt to invalidate ballots that had been cured by voters, he declined to immediately throw them out but ordered them to be kept segregated from other ballots. In another case, he ruled in favor of a Republican suit to toss out more than 2,000 mail-in ballots that lacked hand-written dates.

Since Brobson winning this fall will not change partisan control of the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania Republicans are taking other steps to undermine the Court’s Democratic majority. Republicans in the state Legislature have proposed a constitutional amendment to remake the court by electing judges by region rather than on a statewide basis. The amendment has already passed the state House and Senate. If it passes again, it will go directly to voters for a referendum vote.

Pennsylvania Superior Court

There is also a vacancy on Pennsylvania’s Superior Court, the state appellate court for appeals in criminal and private civil cases. Democrat Timika Lane is facing Republican Megan Sullivan for the open seat. The Superior Court is the busiest appellate court in the country and is often the court of last resort, giving it huge influence on how justice is carried out in Pennsylvania. Additionally, while the decisions of the Superior Court tend to be less politically controversial than those by the state Supreme Court or Commonwealth Court, many of its judges go on to serve on the state Supreme Court — five of the current Supreme Court justices first served on the Superior Court.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court

Finally, there are two open seats on the Commonwealth Court, the state’s other appeals court that decides civil disputes involving the state and appeals against the decisions of state agencies. Four candidates are running for the two seats: Andrew Crompton (R), running for a full term after being appointed to the court by Gov. Tom Wolf (D), Stacy Wallace (R), Lori Dumas (D) and David Spurgeon (D). Crompton is notable for having served as a staffer for Republicans in the Pennsylvania State Senate and contributing to Republican attempts to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2018 redrawing of the state’s congressional map.

The Commonwealth Court handled many of the Trump campaign’s legal challenges in the state and the court’s seven Republican judges handed Trump some of his only legal wins in post-election litigation. One ruling ordered state officials to stop the vote certification, agreeing with U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly that Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in voting violated the state constitution despite receiving widespread support from the Legislature in 2019. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court eventually overturned all of these decisions.

There are a couple of high-profile (and historic) mayoral races as well.

Several of America’s largest cities will or have held mayoral elections this year. Like judicial elections, local races often suffer from low turnout but in many ways can be more influential in people’s everyday lives than federal elections. Given the strong Democratic-lean of most American cities, many of this year’s mayoral races feature two Democrats running against each other.

New York City

America’s most populous city will be electing a new leader, with Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) term-limited this year. Moderate Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (D) prevailed over 12 other Democratic candidates in the June 22 primary, including former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, former de Blasio counsel Maya Wiley and former New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia. 

The primary was the first in New York City’s history to be conducted using ranked-choice voting after voters approved it in a 2019 ballot measure, a reform intended to minimize wasted votes and ensure the winner has at least majority support from the electorate. Adams came out ahead with 50.4% of the vote after eight rounds of ranked-choice voting, ahead of Garcia, thanks to strong support from the city’s minority communities and more moderate stances on public safety. With the completion of the primary, New York became the largest jurisdiction in the country to use ranked-choice voting, which has also been recently implemented for some elections in Maine and in several other municipalities.

Adams is the prohibitive favorite in the Nov. 2 election against Republican nominee Curtis Silwa. Should he win, he will be the city’s second Black mayor.

Boston

Boston will also elect a new mayor after incumbent Marty Walsh (D) resigned to become Secretary of Labor. At-large city councilors Michelle Wu (D) and Annissa Essaibi George (D) both advanced from the nonpartisan preliminary election held on Sept. 14. No matter who wins, it will be history-making — both would be the first woman and the first person of color elected mayor in the city’s history. The city’s 91-year streak of electing Irish- or Italian-American mayors will come to an end.

Wu, currently the front-runner after finishing first in the preliminary election, is seen as the more progressive of the two, having built her campaign around climate change and housing policy. Wu is also notable for being a nonnative Bostonian, having originally moved to Massachusetts to attend Harvard. Essaibi George, on the other hand, grew up in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood and has positioned herself as a relative moderate. The biggest point of contrast between the two candidates is police reform, as Essaibi George is the only major candidate to oppose cutting the Boston Police Department’s budget. Instead, she wants to hire additional officers and work to make the force more diverse while implementing reforms. Wu, on the other hand, calls for greater structural change to the force, such as the creation of a separate response team of mental health clinicians, social workers and other service providers.

Seattle

Like Boston, Seattle’s mayoral election is between two Democrats and two people of color — Seattle City Council President Lorena González and former Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell. Like the race in Boston, the election reflects some of the fault lines within the Democratic party over public safety and police reform. Like Essaibi George, Harrell is seen as a more moderate progressive who supports hiring more police officers and has earned the endorsement of Seattle’s business community. González embraced calls to defund the police last year. The city’s homelessness crisis has also become a major flashpoint in the race, with the candidates proposing markedly different solutions.