While the party feuds over its vast social spending agenda, Republicans are highlighting issues that preoccupy voters more immediately, like a sluggish economy, high gas prices, expensive groceries, crime rates and concerns about the rights of parents to influence what is taught in schools. Those concerns in many cases have been exacerbated by a prolonged pandemic, which President Joe Biden declared all but over in July but that spiked over the summer in a new blow to an exhausted nation’s morale.
Virginia governor’s race especially was seen as a one-year referendum on Biden’s presidency in a state he won by a whopping 10 points a year ago. Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin didn’t just triumph, according to a CNN projection, he showed Republicans everywhere how to win, keeping former President Donald Trump out of the state to make inroads in suburbs lost to the GOP in 2018 and 2020 elections.
If Democrats only underperformed in Virginia, they could have put their misfortune down to an erratic and unfocused campaign by veteran party heavyweight Terry McAuliffe, who was trying to win a second, non-consecutive term as governor.
But in New Jersey, a state Biden won by an even more comfortable margin, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s squeaker reelection race – which is still too close to call – reinforced a sense that the President’s party has lost the country’s confidence as he struggles to live up to his vow to restore competency to the White House and post-pandemic normality to American life.
As the President arrived home from Europe in the early hours of Wednesday, it was not clear that Democratic leaders and many of the voters that ejected Trump from the White House last year are still on the same page. The party’s lawmakers in Washington have spent weeks feuding with one another over the most sweeping social spending plan in generations – a cornerstone of Biden’s agenda.
Biden endured a wretched summer, including a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan that shook confidence in his leadership and dented his approval ratings. It likely hasn’t helped that progressives – who lost out in a series of city elections and ballot initiatives decided on Tuesday – have been a dominant force in the party in Washington, playing into GOP claims that the President is hostage to far-left influences in his own party.
And while much of the Democratic Party and Washington’s political and media world is preoccupied by the fallout from the January 6 insurrection, the results on Tuesday may also suggest that voters are focused on more tangible threats than the erosion of US democracy.
CNN political commentator and former Obama administration official Van Jones declared a “five alarm fire” for Democrats and said the party needs to consider a change of course.
“These numbers are bad,” said Jones. “…These are our voters. These are voters that came to us in 2018, came to us in 2020, and have abandoned us in droves in two states that should be in our column.”
Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic group Priorities USA, said it was time for the party to come together.
“This election is a warning for all Democrats. While DC Democrats spent weeks fighting each other, Republicans were focused on mobilizing their base and peeling away voters from the Biden coalition using deceptive, divisive tactics,” Cecil said.
“It’s time to focus on what’s next. Congressional Democrats must immediately pass the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. We must begin tomorrow to consolidate and mobilize those who turned out to vote Democratic in 2020. And we must draw a sharp contrast between Democratic progress and Republican extremism.”
A blueprint for national Republicans
In Virginia, Youngkin did exactly what he set out to do: He secured huge turnout in rural, conservative areas while avoiding alienating the kind of suburban voters who were turned off by Trump – a factor that helped cost the GOP control of the House in 2018 and the Senate and the White House in 2020.
While sending coded messages to Trump’s base on “election integrity,” race and transgender rights, the polished Youngkin didn’t define his bid on Trump’s voter fraud lies or adopt the polarizing, autocratic fury regularly displayed by the ex-President. And Trump, while continually injecting himself in the race – including on Tuesday night to claim credit for the win – largely kept out of Youngkin’s way. He held a tele-rally on the eve of the vote, but he didn’t travel to Virginia, for instance, after his frenzied rally in Georgia was blamed by some in the GOP for the loss of two Senate runoff races.
Republican strategists believe that anxiety among moms and dads over months of lost in-person classes during Covid-19 gave them an opening in Democratic-leaning suburbs. McAuliffe played into their plan with a disastrous gaffe in a debate in which he appeared to suggest that parents should not have much say in how their kids were educated. The flap played into Republican efforts to exploit concerns among some parents about how America’s tortured racial history is covered in history classes. Youngkin vowed to ban Critical Race Theory on his first day in office – even though it is not part of Virginia’s curriculum – a move that got conservative media on his side. But an ad that implicitly attacked the late Toni Morrison, one of America’s most revered African American authors, hinted at an ugly racial undercurrent to Republican politics in Virginia.
Youngkin won for Republicans by keeping Trump – who dominates the party nationally – out of the picture. And McAuliffe ran against the former President, portraying a vote for a rival he accused of sounding racial dog whistles as a vote for a new Trump White House term. The result suggests fear of Trump among independents and moderates does not run as high when the ex-President isn’t in the Oval Office or on the ballot. And McAuliffe, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and ex-President Barack Obama all appear to have miscalculated by reasoning that the best way to down Youngkin was to paint him as a Trump clone – even though his behavior gave off few of the ex-President’s vibes.
Still, Trump is unlikely to be behind the scenes next fall, as he’s treating the midterm elections as a dry run for his likely 2024 presidential run, so some Democrats may profit by portraying their opponents as in the pocket of the twice-impeached former commander-in-chief who incited a coup against the US Capitol.
So, it’s possible Youngkin’s straddle to avoid alienating both Trump voters and suburbanites might not work quite so well across Virginia state lines.
A warning to vulnerable Democratic House members
It can be dangerous to project too much from one off-year election. Virginia has a long habit of choosing a governor from a party other than the one that just captured the White House. And the volatile mood of voters in recent years has spelled danger for incumbents of both sides, showing how fast things change.
But while Youngkin was only beating McAuliffe by around 80,000 votes among more than 3 million cast, a 10-point swing away from Democrats in only a year will come as a chilling warning to the party’s vulnerable lawmakers in suburban districts who have fumed at House progressives who have held up a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package to secure a larger social spending plan. Anything close to those numbers next November would leave Democrats at extreme risk of losing both the House and the Senate.
Youngkin’s path to victory came by performing far better than Trump in vote percentage in the wealthy, populous, liberal suburbs around Washington, DC, where demographics favor Democrats. But just as interestingly, Youngkin also increased Trump’s vote percentage in some of the most conservative counties. That could suggest that he managed to draw in some disaffected Republicans who balked at Trump’s wild conduct in office. Or it could reflect the former President’s move to urge his supporters to turn out – another apparent move to help the ex-President claim credit for the victory by a candidate who largely ignored him.
However the Republican dynamics play out, Democrats know they have a grave problem. It’s possible that the pandemic-affected economy could be in much better shape this time next year, and that Covid-19 will no longer be a dominant feature of national life or that inflation that is eating into many family budgets could be quelled. If Biden has already reached his low point, Democrats will at least hope to limit their losses in the midterms.
But they need their voters to show up – against what looks like an electrified GOP base, according to Tuesday’s evidence. And unless the President passes his two priority bills soon and makes progress on other issues including voting rights or immigration reform, already difficult midterm elections will begin to look impossible.
“People voted for us last year,” a Democrat close to the McAuliffe campaign who was frustrated with Congress, told CNN’s Dan Merica. “We have to give them something.”