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Trump not on stage but front and center in Virginia, New Jersey gubernatorial debates

Former President Trump is not on the ballot this November in Virginia and New Jersey, but he’s center stage in the top-of-the-ticket campaigns in the only two states to hold gubernatorial elections in the year after a presidential contest.

The dynamic was clearly on display in gubernatorial debates in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday night, as the Democratic candidates attempted to tie their Republican opponents to Trump, who lost both states by double digits in last November’s presidential election.

Trump repeatedly came up during a feisty second and final debate in Virginia with five weeks to go until Election Day, where former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin accused each other of lying.

TIGHT VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL RACE BETWEEN MCAULIFFE AND YOUNGKIN WITH FIVE WEEKS TO GO UNTIL ELECTION

McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin, the former CEO of a large private equity firm who’s been endorsed by Trump, to the former president in campaign commercials. And he continued his full-court press at the debate, once again labeling Youngkin a “Trump wannabe.”

Youngkin responded to the effort by McAuliffe to portray him as a Trump clone with some humor.

“Terry, you just made folks in Las Vegas a lot of money,” Youngkin said. “There’s an over-under tonight on how many times you’re going to say ‘Donald Trump,’ and it was 10, and you just busted through it.”

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, participate in their debate at Northern Virginia Community College, in Alexandria, Virginia, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, participate in their debate at Northern Virginia Community College, in Alexandria, Virginia, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
(AP)

Virginia has shifted blue over the past decade, and it’s been a dozen years since Republicans won a statewide election in the commonwealth. But with five weeks to go until the election, the latest public opinion polls indicate McAuliffe holding a very slight advantage over Youngkin, a first-time candidate from the more moderate business wing of the GOP who courted Trump supporters to win the Republican nomination. 

But during the debate, Youngkin disagreed with the former president when moderator Chuck Todd of NBC News asked about Trump’s unfounded claims that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” and “stolen” from him.

“There wasn’t material fraud, and I believe that the election was certifiably fair,” Youngkin responded.

MODERATOR CHUCK TODD CALLS FOR SECURITY AS THIRD-PARTY CANDIDATE TRIES TO CRASH VIRGINIA GUBERNATORIAL DEBATE 

Trump remains very popular with Republican voters and extremely influential with GOP politicians as he continues to play a kingmaker’s role in the party and repeatedly teases another presidential run in 2024.

Asked if he’d support Trump in the next presidential election, Youngkin answered, “If he’s the Republican nominee, I’ll support him.”

The debate was held in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., the fastest- growing part of the commonwealth and an area where Democrats have dominated in recent years, thanks to the shift of suburban voters away from the GOP during the Trump era.

As he runs to win his old job back – Virginia governors are barred from serving two consecutive terms – McAuliffe appears to be taking a page from the playbook of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who easily kept his job in this month’s gubernatorial recall election.

Part of Newsom’s strategy was to tie the Republican replacement candidates to the former president. Newsom’s job was made easier as conservative talk radio host Larry Elder zoomed to front-runner status among the replacement contenders in the final two months of the recall campaign and became the face of the unsuccessful push to oust the embattled Democratic governor.

California is a heavily blue state while Virginia remains competitive between the two major parties. While not as blue as California, Democrats in New Jersey enjoy a registration advantage of roughly 1 million more voters than Republicans.

But Gov. Phil Murphy’s trying to become the first Democratic governor in more than four decades to win reelection. Republican gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciattarelli, a certified public accountant who started a medical publishing company and a former state lawmaker who’s making his second bid for governor, trails Murphy by double digits in most of the latest polls in the race.

Like the testy showdown in Virginia, Tuesday’s first of two gubernatorial debates in New Jersey was also acrimonious. As with the Virginia face-off, Murphy and Ciattarelli traded fire over COVID vaccine and mask mandates and abortion. And while not to the degree of the Virginia debate, Trump was also a factor in the Garden State showdown.

Murphy characterized Ciattarelli’s stances as “extremism” and tied him to the former president, who lost New Jersey by 16 points to Joe Biden last November.  

“If those of you at home are playing a drinking game where they have to take a shot every time he says ‘Trump,’ I suggest they stop, because they’re going to be bombed real soon,” Ciattarelli said in response to Murphy. 

Ciattarelli, who was critical of Trump during the 2016 election but eventually supported him, has not emphasized the former president as he runs for governor.

“The Trump attacks aren’t moving any needles right now because it seems to have already been baked in to the voters’ calculations right now. If you had a strong opinion about Trump, you already knew whether you were going to vote D or R in these races,” Monmouth University polling institute director Patrick Murray told Fox News.

But Murray, who conducts polling in both New Jersey and Virginia, noted that “what both Democratic candidates are trying to do is to see if they can up that ante just a few more points, by consistently reminding voters about Trump and trying to paint the Republican candidates – who are trying to put themselves in a more central position – trying to paint them as being more aligned with Trump than they want you to think.”

Asked if that strategy may pay off, Murray said that “in Virginia, where the race is closer, a few points could make or break the election.” 

Paul Steinhauser is a politics reporter based in New Hampshire. 

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