What’s really at stake in Tuesday’s elections

National media coverage of Tuesday’s elections has focused fairly overwhelmingly on the governor’s race in Virginia, which seems to be close and features some interesting storylines about Ed Gillespie’s race-baiting electioneering tactics, which, if successful, will likely prove to be a model for Republicans nationwide.

But the policy stakes outside Virginia — in the not-so-close gubernatorial election in New Jersey, a Washington state Senate special election, and a Maine ballot initiative to expand Medicaid — are equally high. These other races haven’t attracted as much attention because they’re less interesting from a horse-race perspective. The New Jersey race looks set to be a Democratic blowout, the state Senate special in the suburbs of Seattle is lightly polled but also seems to clearly favor Democrats, and the paucity of polling in Maine makes it hard to construct any kind of narrative.

Yet Democratic victories in these three races have huge effects. An expected Democratic win in New Jersey would create a Democratic trifecta in a blue state — potentially unleashing a wave of progressive policymaking that’s been stifled by eight years of Chris Christie. Flipping Washington’s state Senate from a one-vote GOP majority to a one-vote Democratic majority will also create a Democratic trifecta; a narrow legislative margin but one that creates new opportunities when combined with Washington state’s stronger fiscal position. Medicaid expansion in Maine would be a huge deal for the estimated 70,000 Mainers newly qualified for the program and a shot in the arm to rural hospitals.

New Jersey could get an empowered Democratic governor

New Jersey is a solidly Democratic state that Hillary Clinton carried by 14 points and where Democrats have long enjoyed substantial majorities in the state legislature. But for the past eight years, the once-popular Republican Chris Christie has served as governor.

Polls show fairly overwhelming odds that his chosen successor, Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, is going to be beaten by Democratic former banker and Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy. Given the state’s overall political lean, the Murphy administration will have fairly broad latitude to pursue a progressive agenda (though he will be constrained by the fact that New Jersey’s state finances aren’t in great shape and a Democratic administration will probably want to deal generously with New Jersey’s public sector employees and their pension plan).

But even given that constraint, the likely agenda for a Democratic trifecta is fairly expansive:

  • Murphy supports legalization of marijuana, a significant criminal justice policy initiative that he’s also counting on to raise revenue.
  • Murphy is also proposing a big tax hike on New Jersey’s richest residents and corporations.
  • Christie has been vetoing gun control bills, including a measure to decrease accidental shootings by children, that Murphy would almost certainly sign.
  • Murphy has promised to extend a number of state-level protections to undocumented immigrants, including notably making them eligible for state-issued identification cards and occupational licenses.
  • Murphy wants to charter a state bank, copying a practice that’s long been in place in North Dakota, that would be able to both meet certain policy objectives on the consumer side and guarantee that funds raised from New Jersey customers are invested in New Jersey businesses.
  • Murphy promises more aid to state institutions of higher education and less reliance on tests in K-12 education.
  • Murphy also promised to sign bills Christie has vetoed to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Guadagno, a close ally of Christie, isn’t likely to win, but if she did it, would largely represent continued gridlock with the Democratic dominated legislature. A key difference is that under her leadership — to whatever extent an economic upturn improves the state’s fiscal situation — a Guadagno administration would have a strong bias toward plowing the money into lower taxes rather than expanding public services.

Democrats might flip the Washington legislature — giving them total control

Washington state has had a string of Democratic governors going all the way back to 1985, the lower house of the legislature is solidly in Democratic hands, and there is one more Democrat than Republican in the state Senate. But one of those state senators, Tim Shelton, agreed to caucus with the Republicans, giving them effective control of the legislature and the ability to keep progressive items off the political agenda.

A special election held today in the eastern suburbs of Seattle is likely to produce a victory for the Democratic nominee, Manka Dhingra, which would flip control of the state Senate and give Democrats solid control of the state government. Due to the outsize significance of the single race, it’s attracted millions of dollars in campaign spending. It’s certainly conceivable that Republicans will hold it, but the district heavily favored Clinton last year and the scanty public polling that’s been conducted suggests a Dhingra win is the most likely scenario.

It’s not entirely clear what policies will pass if Dhingra wins, but Alexander Burns and Kirk Johnson reported for the New York Times over the weekend that “Democrats have sketched an aggressive agenda on issues where strong consensus appears to exist in the party, including new laws on gun control, contraception and environmental regulation.”

The state’s governor, Jay Inslee, is particularly passionate about environmental issues, and is likely to push hard for a climate change legacy — including everything from new investments in green energy to even a carbon tax if he can pull it off.

Maine will probably expand Medicaid

There is almost no polling on Maine’s upcoming Medicaid expansion ballot initiative, which makes it hard to write about from a horse-race perspective. But Clinton carried the state, albeit by a narrower margin than Democrats are used to in Maine, and Maine politicos I’ve spoken to all say they know some Trump voters who are a yes on Medicaid expansion, with no Clinton voters opposing it.

The Democrat-controlled state legislature has repeatedly voted to expand Medicaid only to have it repeatedly vetoed by the state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, who now has a 38 percent approval rating in part as a result.

If it passes, 70,000 people will get health insurance. The federal government will pick up 90 percent of the tab for that coverage expansion, meaning a large injection of new money into the state. Studies show Medicaid expansion brings broad financial benefits to people who get it over and above improved access to health care. So since expansion-eligible Mainers live disproportionately in the state’s rural areas, expansion should be a big shot in the arm for local economies that are ailing under the weight of a structural decline in the logging industry.

There’s more to life than Virginia

Political commentary is biased toward the horse race and toward slightly arbitrary notions of expectations. Democrats winning a gubernatorial election in New Jersey is a dog-bites-man story in “narrative” terms, while a GOP win in Virginia would be a significant upset that may tell us a fair amount of the viability of different kinds of election strategies in future races.

But in actual policy terms, expectations are irrelevant. New Jersey and Washington going solid blue means that a lot will change — in part precisely because these are liberal-leaning states where policymakers will want to be aggressive.

The Maine ballot initiative on Medicaid, meanwhile, won’t really tell us anything at all about “politics in the Trump era” or other broader themes. But it will have a direct, life-or-death impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people. Elections are interesting, ultimately, because their outcomes have impact in the real world. And the biggest changes in that regard are probably in the races that are attracting the least attention.