dana bash virginia youngkin reax 1103
CNN's Dana Bash reacts to Glenn Youngkin's win in Virginia
01:38 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Democrats, who have dominated Virginia for years – and who won the Old Dominion in a landslide for Joe Biden just a year ago – were washed away in a red tide. They lost both the governorship and the lieutenant governorship. It was a wipeout.

Why? That is the question that will dominate Democrats’ chatter as they gather over their organic, GMO-free, chai tea with soy milk. The denial caucus will tell us to pay no attention to an off-off year election. They’ll probably say Terry McAuliffe ran a bad campaign. Baloney. And that the Virginia election was just a heartburn. I say it’s more like a heart attack.

I believe the Dems’ defeat was a result of history, Democratic divisions and a Republican Party that is learning how to exploit racial and cultural issues … without wholeheartedly embracing Donald Trump.

In 11 of the last 12 elections, Virginia has elected a governor from the party opposite of the president. The one exception: McAuliffe, who won in 2013, the year after Barack Obama won re-election. Pumping the brake pedal is a sensible reaction for many Virginians.

It’s sensible to many other Americans as well. The party of a newly-elected president usually gets hammered in the next midterm election. Donald Trump’s GOP lost 41 House seats in 2018. Barack Obama’s Democrats dropped 63. Biden’s Democrats can’t afford to lose more than three if they want to retain control of the House.

But brake-pedal equilibrium is just the beginning of the Democrats’ challenges. There is also the circular firing squad formed by congressional Democrats, which both depressed the Democratic base and alienated the suburban swing voters on whom their majority rested.

Every day, those progressive Democrats bemoaned a cherished priority that was being cut from Biden’s infrastructure bill – laments that depressed core Democrats. Not to be outdone, moderate Democrats focused on the trillion-dollar-plus price tag, which told suburban voters that they needed to hit the brakes on spending.

The final factor that swung the commonwealth was a GOP nominee who was savvy (or, some might say, cynical) enough to embrace much of former president Donald Trump’s agenda to rally the MAGA crowd, but was different enough stylistically to reassure suburbanites.

Democrats often win by focusing on kitchen-table economic issues. Republicans, on the other hand, win when middle-class voters are more concerned about cultural issues. Since the Democrats were not able to deliver on kitchen-table economics, the GOP was able to drive a wedge into the Democratic coalition with cultural issues.

Glenn Youngkin shamelessly exploited racial divisions with his virtually fact-free assertion that critical race theory is poisoning the minds of the schoolchildren of Virginia. “We actually have this critical race theory moved into all of our schools in Virginia,” he dishonestly claimed. Never mind that Politifact reports that “Critical race theory is not mentioned in Virginia’s Standards of Learning.”

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    Critical Race Theory was a dog whistle. In fact, some progressives have argued that CRT stands for Creating Racial Tension. I agree. But cynical, divisive racial appeals find more fertile soil when Democrats can’t deliver. The middle-class American Dream is why God created the Democratic Party.

    If DC Dems can’t unite and make life better for working families, they will be swept away in the same flood that wiped them out in Virginia.