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Virginia, New Jersey Gubernatorial Primaries May Test Parties' Fractures

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Right now there are only two states slated to choose new governors this year - New Jersey and Virginia. And tomorrow, Tuesday, June 8, those two states will hold primary elections that could be a bellwether for how Democrats and Republicans are faring in parties that have both become more fractured after the 2020 election. We're going to talk through the stakes right now with Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Welcome.

GEOFFREY SKELLEY: Hey. Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being here. So I want to start with Virginia, where the Democratic primary has this crowded field of five candidates who, I understand, would each make history if they go on to win in the general election. Can you just real quick tell us about each of them?

SKELLEY: Sure. I mean, I think we want to focus mainly on three candidates in particular who seem to be the leaders in the field. You have former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who I think at this point is viewed as the frontrunner. It's true in the polls, his fundraising and in other ways as well. He would be the first governor or - excuse me - the second governor to win two non-consecutive terms as governor of Virginia. And that's important because in Virginia, a governor cannot immediately seek reelection. So he's trying to get his old job back. So that's only been done once before.

And then you have two women, Black women - Jennifer Carroll Foy, a former state delegate, and Jennifer McClellan, a state senator - who are seeking to become the first woman governor of the state of Virginia and the first Black woman anywhere in the United States. So those are sort of the historical stakes of this.

CHANG: OK. So there's McAuliffe, who very much representing the Democratic establishment, and these two other candidates, who I understand are positioning themselves well to the left of McAuliffe. What do you think it means for the party to now have more than one progressive contender in a state that, I mean, was still considered a battleground state just a few election cycles ago, right?

SKELLEY: Sure. I mean, I think it's sort of indicative of what's going on with the national party, which has moved somewhat to the left. But now you have sort of these gradients of progressivism - sort of more establishment-type in McAuliffe, who has called for things like raising the minimum wage to $15 in the state of Virginia. He's also grabbed some of the language of progressivism, talking about being big and bold because he knows that he is viewed as the more establishment, maybe centrist candidate of the bunch.

And then you have Carroll Foy and McClellan, who are endorsed by a number of more left-leaning groups. Carroll Foy in particular has attracted, I think, a lot of support from national left-leaning groups like the Sunrise Movement, which is pro-Green New Deal, for instance. And McClellan calls herself a practical progressive, so maybe she's sort of trying to be between the two of them. But nonetheless, I think it says that progressivism is gaining, to some extent, in states that are even sort of traditionally establishment like Virginia. But at the same time, the fact that you have two candidates like this is making it harder...

CHANG: Right.

SKELLEY: ...For opposition to McAuliffe to consolidate. And given his position in the polls in the mid- to high-40s, it's going to be difficult if support doesn't really consolidate behind one of them.

CHANG: OK. We have less than a minute left, but I want to get to...

SKELLEY: Sure.

CHANG: ...New Jersey. The Republican primary is what everyone's watching tomorrow. Would you characterize this race as kind of a test for Trump's grip on Republicans in New Jersey?

SKELLEY: I would say to some extent, and I think it's a little bit of a mirror image in that you have gradients of support for President Trump. You have Jack Ciattarelli, who's sort of the establishment favorite, state delegate - or former state delegate, supports Trump's policies but has said that Biden won the election. And then you have Hirsh Singh, who's sort of his main opponent, who is very much embracing Trump, has said Trump won the election, that Ciattarelli is a...

CHANG: Right.

SKELLEY: ...Cheney-Romney Republican who wants to stab Trump in the back.

CHANG: OK.

SKELLEY: So I think that sort of sets up this conflict. And we're going to see a lot of that...

CHANG: OK.

SKELLEY: ...I think in 2022 primaries.

CHANG: That is Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Thank you.

SKELLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY MORNING JACKET SONG, "I'M AMAZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.