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What to watch in 2021 state and local elections

Notwithstanding their low profile and expectations for low voter turnout, Tuesday’s elections in Pennsylvania will offer the clearest snapshot yet of the electorate during Joe Biden’s presidency.

Notwithstanding their low profile and expectations for low voter turnout, Tuesday’s elections in Pennsylvania — plus higher-profile gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia — will offer the clearest snapshot yet of the electorate during Joe Biden’s presidency.
Notwithstanding their low profile and expectations for low voter turnout, Tuesday’s elections in Pennsylvania — plus higher-profile gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia — will offer the clearest snapshot yet of the electorate during Joe Biden’s presidency.Read moreDreamstime / MCT

A year after the contentious 2020 presidential campaign, things are a bit quieter ahead of Tuesday’s state and local elections.

But all elections matter, of course, and the offices on the ballot this week will affect millions of people across the state. In New Jersey there is a governor’s race — one of two in the nation. In Pennsylvania, there are races for Pennsylvania Supreme Court and other statewide appellate judgeships, among other races.

Most Pennsylvania counties aren’t electing county commissioners this year, making this election cycle even less active than other off-years. “You go from the busiest year you can have, the presidential election, downshifting from fifth gear to first gear in a car,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Pennsylvania Republican consultant. “It’s just a big slowdown. It’s hard to get even party people excited about judicial races even though they are very important.”

Notwithstanding their low profile and expectations for low voter turnout, Tuesday’s elections in Pennsylvania — plus gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia — will offer the clearest snapshot yet of the electorate during Joe Biden’s presidency and provide clues about the political environment ahead of the 2022 midterms.

Here are some questions and themes to watch as the results come in:

New Jersey governor’s race: A Murphy reelection or a red wave?

Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking to become the first Democrat in the Garden State to win reelection in more than 40 years. But that doesn’t make him the underdog against Republican Jack Ciattarelli.

Most national attention is on the Virginia governor’s race, where polling shows a tighter election. Both states elected Republican governors in 2009, the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency. If Ciattarelli beats Murphy, Democrats will have a lot more to worry about than potential GOP victories in Pennsylvania judicial races.

» READ MORE: New Jersey hasn’t reelected a Democratic governor in 44 years. Gov. Phil Murphy says he’ll break the curse.

» READ MORE: Republican Jack Ciattarelli is looking to become N.J. governor by reaching moderates without losing the Trump base

Pa. judicial races: Turnout, turnout, turnout

Elections for Pennsylvania’s three appellate courts — Supreme, Commonwealth, and Superior — are the only statewide races this year.

Campaigns and interest groups have spent millions of dollars on advertising — particularly on the Supreme Court race between two appeals court judges, Republican Kevin Brobson and Democrat Maria McLaughlin — but the spending is relatively small in the scheme of electoral politics. Television spending in the race has reached about $5 million, according to the media-tracking firm AdImpact.

» READ MORE: Powerful special interests are pouring millions into the 2021 Pa. Supreme Court race

Voters take in less information about the individual candidates in races such as these, so the results can be an indicator of how voters feel generally about each party. It will also be important to know which voters actually make up this year’s electorate.

National and state polls have suggested that Republicans are more energized than Democrats; we’ll soon know more about that apparent enthusiasm gap.

J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant, said if either party wins by a margin of about 5 percentage points or more, “then it really says something” about political dynamics.

“If it’s fairly close [particularly 2% or less] then I would read nothing into it because the peculiarities of an odd-year election trump small movements,” he said.

» READ MORE: Republican changes TV attack ad in Pa. Supreme Court race after criticism

Polling from Franklin and Marshall College shows that more Pennsylvania voters view Biden unfavorably (51%) than favorably (45%), and his job approval rating is below 40%. That suggests Democrats will face political headwinds.

What happens in the Philly suburbs post-Trump?

Within three years of Trump’s 2016 election, Republicans went from controlling three courthouses in Philadelphia’s four collar counties to none.

But Trump’s presidency accelerated political shifts already two decades in the making, as the suburbs became more racially diverse and home to more young adults and those with college degrees, who tend to vote more Democratic.

That didn’t translate into big electoral success at the local level until 2017, when Democrats won a Delaware County council seat for the first time and picked up countywide row offices in Chester and Bucks Counties.

The results foreshadowed the party’s takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives the following year, when Democrats picked up suburban seats across the country. And in 2019, Democrats outside Philadelphia cemented their historic gains by winning control of county government in Chester, Delaware, and Bucks. (The party has had a majority in Montgomery County since 2011.)

But will those trends persist with Trump out of the White House? Republicans had success in down-ballot races outside Philadelphia last year. On Tuesday, elections for county council in Delaware County and row offices in Chester and Bucks Counties will offer more clues.

On the other side of the political realignment, political observers are monitoring whether Democratic support will continue to erode in such places as Northeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania.

What happens in bellwether counties?

Politically, Pennsylvania is pretty polarized, with the highest concentration of Democrats in its major cities and outlying suburbs, and Republican majorities in rural counties. But we’re still home to several swing counties, which, in many ways, mimic the state as a whole and could hold clues to statewide electorate behavior to come.

» READ MORE: Two Pa. swing counties’ elections could offer clues for the year ahead

Tuesday, we’re curious about Bucks County, where Republicans hope to hold on to their sole remaining countywide row officer seat in the collar counties. Bucks District Attorney Matthew Weintraub faces off against Antonetta Stancu, who, along with the Democrat running for sheriff, went on the airwaves early in the race with a TV ad saying they supported police funding. It was a clear acknowledgment that Democrats believe they were wounded last year by GOP ads that portrayed them as hostile to law enforcement.

Democrats in Bucks have tried to portray Republicans as anti-science.

In Facebook ads, the Bucks GOP has urged voters to “take a stand against Biden’s woke agenda” and highlighted his chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Do Trump-aligned candidates prevail?

Two other bellwether counties in Pennsylvania — Erie and Northampton — could offer additional clues beyond party strength about the type of candidate who can turn out voters in swing areas. They’re the only counties that flipped from Trump to Biden in 2020, and they also happen to have competitive local races this year.

Will a more Trump-aligned candidate such as Steve Lynch, running for county executive in Northampton, prevail? Or will his more radical views (he’s called the vaccine dangerous and said he wanted to physically remove school board members in favor of masking) turn off moderate Republicans? If the underfunded Lynch beats the incumbent, Lamont McClure, it could say something about how motivated the Trump base can be if handed a candidate that appeals to them.

In Erie, Democrat Tyler Titus, who beat out the party-backed, more moderate candidate in the primary, is facing off against Brenton Davis, who has had to counter a torrent of criticism over antivax, pro-gun social media postings from his past. Titus would be the first openly transgender person to run a county in the United States, making this a race with history-making potential.

It could signal to both parties that unconventional candidates can win in bellwethers ahead of a Senate race in Pennsylvania with a crowded field — though comparisons are limited by the fact that 2022 turnout will be much higher.

School board races: Is critical race theory a potent issue? How about masks and COVID-19?

From the Virginia governor’s race on down, schools have dominated the campaign conversation this cycle. Across Pennsylvania, hundreds of candidates are now running for school board seats backed by $500,000 from venture capitalist Paul Martino, a Bucks County father who says he wants to ensure schools that shuttered during the pandemic stay open.

Martino’s group also has the backing of the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund, a pro-school choice PAC; most of the candidates he’s supporting are Republicans. The Working Families Party has poured money into a few Democratic candidates’ campaigns as have some Democratic PACs.

Will the influx of money, and some of the attack ads they’ve produced, make a difference in those races?

» READ MORE: A Bucks County dad angered by COVID-19 closures gave $500,000 to school board candidates. Critics say it’s fueling ‘toxic’ politics.

And for voters, will the cultural war playing out at school board meetings over masking, vaccines and teaching about race in schools translate to more voters? In the last six months, one of the key issues at the school board level has been opposition to critical race theory, which holds that American racism has shaped public policy, typically taught at the college level and not in grade schools. The phrase has, in most cases, become a catch-all for parents who say they want more control over curriculum, particularly relating to teachings about race.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and animosity,” Northampton Democratic chair Matt Munsey said of the tensions at the school board level. While fighting against that is motivating Democrats to a degree, he thinks Republicans are most galvanized by the issue along with continuing to challenge the results of the 2020 election. “Democrats who aren’t feeding off all of that feel like, you know, we did our job last year ... we don’t need to worry about it,” he said.

By contrast, state GOP chairman Lawrence Tabas said last month, “These local races, we’re finding, are driving the top of our ticket.”

What does Republican turnout look like statewide amid Trump’s false claims?

Although public polling seems to indicate Republicans are more motivated than Democrats this election, there is another situation that could play out: Republicans stay home, falsely believing the last election was stolen.

Megan Sullivan, the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania Superior Court, spoke out against that last month.

“Let’s make this a tsunami, a wave like they’ve never seen so it brings us into 2022, it brings the people back that feel like their vote doesn’t count,” she told Bucks County Republicans.

Philly turnout: Does anyone show up to vote?

In Philadelphia, the state’s Democratic hotbed, the city controller is running unopposed and District Attorney Larry Krasner is widely expected to cruise to victory. If Democrats aren’t motivated to turn out, the party might not get the numbers they’ve come to count on in Philadelphia.

That could impact statewide judicial races. Two Philadelphia natives, McLaughlin and Timika Lane, are on the ballot.

Lane, a Democrat and Common Pleas Court judge, is running for Superior Court.

An earlier version of this story misidentified a funding source of Paul Martino’s Back to School PA PAC. It is the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund.