By: Michael Green, Manager, State Government Relations and Elizabeth Tansing, Director, State Government Relations, Food Marketing InstituteVote image

It’s hard to believe nearly a year has passed since the tumultuous 2016 elections. While pundits may still spill ink debating what happened and why, the gears of government grind on, and election season is once again upon us. This November, voters in New Jersey and Virginia will head to the polls. Special elections to fill vacancies will also be held, most notably in the state of Washington, and 22 ballot initiatives will be held in seven states. Though far more limited in scope than a year ago, the 2017 state elections are nevertheless set to have a significant impact on the supermarket industry.

In 2016, every state legislature in the nation but five held an election and twelve states selected a new governor. This year presents a much different picture. With the New Jersey Legislature and Virginia House of Delegates holding elections, not including a handful of special elections in other states, a mere fraction of the USA’s 1,972 Senate seats and less than 200 of the 5,411 House seats will be up for grabs.

The current breakdown of the New Jersey State Senate is 24 Democrats to 16 Republicans and the General Assembly is at 48 Democrats to 32 Republicans. In Virginia, the House of Delegates partisan breakdown is 65 Republicans to 32 Democrats.

New Jersey and Virginia also happen to be two of the eighteen states currently under divided government; that is, at least one chamber of the legislature and the governorship are controlled by different parties. Thus, this November presents an opportunity for New Jersey Democrats and Virginia Republicans, respectively, to achieve unified control of the government in their states.

A flip in either state could have profound consequences for the grocery industry. In New Jersey, a whole host of wage and labor regulations currently being held at bay by Gov. Christie’s veto pen – from a $15 minimum wage to paid sick leave mandates to restrictive scheduling – will be back in play in 2018 with the election of a democratic governor. Likewise, a Virginia under unified GOP control offers the potential for both tax and regulatory relief, including the opportunity to preempt localities from taxing food and beverages. Legislative intervention on any of these fronts would be significant for the grocery industry, which operates at 1.1 percent profit margins.

While the upcoming legislative elections certainly have the potential to shake-up New Jersey and Virginia politics, the action is also in the governors’ races.  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) are both term-limited and can not seek reelection. The major candidates to replace Gov. Christie are Phil Murphy (D), a twenty-three year veteran of Goldman Sachs and former U.S.  Ambassador to Germany  and Kim Guadagno (R), the current Secretary of State for New Jersey who has also served as the New Jersey Lt. Governor. The polling averages currently show Murphy up by 16.4 points.

In Virginia, the candidates to replace Gov. McAuliffe are Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist and Army veteran and Ed Gillespie (R), a past national chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee and past counselor to the President in the George W. Bush administration. Lt. Gov. Northam currently leads in the polling averages by 6.8 points.   

The state of Washington exemplifies why it is important to pay attention to special elections. Washington will hold special elections for five seats in the Senate and three in the House of Representatives. While the majority of the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives is not at stake in the November special elections, the Senate is. On paper, Democrats control the Senate 25 to 24, but in reality, Senate president pro tempore Tim Sheldon (D) caucuses with the GOP, so Republicans maintain control. A vacancy caused by the death of Senator Andy Hill, a Republican in the 45th district, could determine effective control of the Senate, in this highly-contested race by two first-time politicians. Democrat Manka Dhingra, an Indian Sikh immigrant, is an attorney who clerked for the Washington State Supreme Court and interned in the Washington State Attorney General’s office. She faces Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, a former aide to US congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. If Dhingra wins, Democrats will gain control of the state Senate, making Washington one of seven Democratically-controlled trifectas.

Maine, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington State will host ballot initiatives. Subjects range from property taxes to sales and use taxes to drug price standards.

To help prepare for any changes and challenges the November elections may create, FMI’s State Affairs Department will host four regional planning meetings to bring FMI members and state grocery and retail association executives together to share information regionally. Discussion of legislative and regulatory strategies and issues of importance for the upcoming state legislative sessions will also be held. These meetings provide an important opportunity to learn the lessons of 2017 and strategize for 2018. Use the FMI Regional Legislative Meetings webpage to find your meeting and register to attend. And if you live in a locality that is holding an election on November 7, don’t forget to vote!