In Tuesday’s elections, Republican candidates surged in blue states, cities rejected major police reform and suburban voters showed their independence. The major takeaways? This is a more moderate and centrist country than activists on either the right or left let on, and Donald Trump fever may be breaking.
The system is working. Here’s one thing everybody can be happy about: The election results, for the most part, are not being questioned. That may have a lot to do with Republicans doing well. But the results should prove to them that Trump’s voter fraud myth is in fact a myth.
From there, things get more situational. Here’s what Republicans and Democrats should take away from the results.
Leave Trump behind. Maybe Republicans didn’t need to change voting laws, as they have been doing in key states, attempting to drive down Democratic turnout. Maybe they just needed to drop Donald Trump, as Republican Glenn Youngkin did on his way to winning the governor’s race in Virginia, defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
It wasn’t a bomb-throwing wannabe strongman who won over voters in the blue state. It was a smiling rich guy in a zippered vest who toned down but did not abandon racial issues that appealed to Trump supporters and seized on notions of so-called “parental choice” that appealed to suburbanites. His other big issue was ending a tax on groceries. These are literally kitchen table issues.
The moderate Republican running for governor in New Jersey, Jack Ciattarelli, achieved a more stunning swing against the progressive Democrat Phil Murphy, who only narrowly leads as votes trickle in. Ciattarelli rejected Trump’s election conspiracy theories and encouraged Republicans to vote.
Compare those results with the California recall election in September, when Republicans rallied around a fire-breathing candidate, Larry Elder, a talk radio host. They lost hard, handing a victory to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Primaries are a problem. Republicans in Virginia got Youngkin rather than a more Trump-friendly politician by doing an end-run around their own voters. They took power from the GOP base and selected Youngkin with a nontraditional process of delegates going to drive-in locations back in May.
In Buffalo, four-term mayor Byron Brown lost the primary earlier this year to Democratic Socialist India Walton, so he mounted a write-in campaign – the politics equivalent of the Triple Lindy. He’ll keep his job.
The people who vote get to choose. Democracies don’t reflect the will of the people; they reflect the will of the people who vote. It’s a different set of people who show up in an off-off-year election like this one than in a general election, when the White House and Congress are up for grabs. It’s an even smaller subset that take part in off-off-year primaries.
Base voters on the right and left are the kinds of voters who show up to primaries, and they’re also often the ones who have the most extreme views, driving American politicians into partisan corners.
Politicians need to listen to what people want. “It sounds old fashioned, but you go out, you talk to people, you construct a platform based on what they have to say,” said the Republican strategist and CNN commentator Scott Jennings, who is no fan of Trump. He noted Tuesday that in recent years the GOP hasn’t had a platform.
“The platform was whatever Donald Trump woke up that day and was thinking about.”
Youngkin’s campaign, however, was built around issues that people care about, said Jennings. That’s the path to victory. “This campaign had a platform and schools, and crime and quality of life were the core of that platform.”
Youngkin took critical race theory, something not currently taught in Virginia schools, and turned it into a potent campaign issue by making voters feel like schools, many of which physically closed during the pandemic, weren’t doing their jobs. Never mind that he likely won’t have the power to do much about it as governor.
The slogan “defund the police” has not aged well. Maybe Democrats need to think long and hard about how to package efforts to remake American policing, particularly in the suburbs.
Given the pain and suffering uncovered over the past year, there’s clearly a need for police reform. But finding the answer won’t be easy.
Even in Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd kicked off a national protest movement, voters rejected a plan to end the city’s police department.
Jacob Frey, the mayor targeted for his refusal to radically change policing, cruised to re-election, according to unofficial results.
Eric Adams, the new mayor in New York City, won’t be a radical liberal; he is a former cop who pushes law and order alongside the need for accountability.
Democrats may need to move on from Trump even as they seek accountability for his attempted coup in Congress.
Voters are over it, clearly, since McAuliffe built his campaign around painting Youngkin as a mini-Trump rather than on issues like keeping Virginia schools open.
Democrats will now pivot. You can sense the freak-out happening among Democrats. Their moderate members, already worried about the GOP’s historical advantage in next year’s midterm elections, will be even more nervous about the massive social spending bill being pushed by President Joe Biden on Capitol Hill.
Conversely, if they don’t pass a version of it, they’ll have squandered a large portion of what’s likely to be their only years clinging to complete power in Washington.
They, too, could take the advice of Jennings and talk to voters about what they want rather than keep talking about Trump.