In Virginia’s GOP rural precincts, the places where Donald Trump is still a hero, voters surged to polling places in a tidal wave. Republican Glenn Youngkin ran ahead of Trump’s 2020 showing in counties where there did not seem to be much room for improving his party’s vote.
Democrats, particularly young and Black voters, stayed away, making up a far smaller share of the electorate than they did a year ago.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe had hoped that continuing fear of Trump would be enough to push him past an opponent who played down his connections with Trump in the suburbs but signaled his loyalty to the former president’s faithful.
But in the end, exit polling made clear, hostility to Biden mattered more than alarm over Trump.
Virginia has not converted to Trumpism. On the contrary, only 42 percent of its voters on Tuesday saw the former president favorably; 54 percent viewed him unfavorably, but Youngkin managed to win 17 percent of those anti-Trump voters. By connecting just well enough with suburban moderates, the fleece-wearing, hoops-shooting Republican ratified the potential of a two-faced GOP strategy toward Trump for the 2022 midterms.
The Biden drag was unmistakable. McAuliffe won 93 percent of the voters who approved of Biden, Youngkin 91 percent of those who disapproved of him. The Democrats’ problem: In Tuesday’s electorate, Biden’s rating was 45 percent positive, 54 percent negative.
But McAuliffe cannot simply blame the president or a dithering Democratic Congress for failing to enact the president’s program in a timely way — even if they have much to answer for.
McAuliffe will no doubt long regret 12 words that Youngkin played back again and again in advertising that blanketed the state: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
It was a dismissive formulation that made it far harder for McAuliffe to push back against Youngkin’s demagogic attack on critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia’s schools.
McAuliffe was not wrong to describe Youngkin’s appeal as “a racist dog whistle.” It certainly worked that way. But Democrats and progressives need a much better answer to parental discontent.
They must be more aggressive in responding to a right-wing strategy of disrupting school boards all over the nation and seeking to censor books not to the far right’s liking. They also have to make a compelling argument for how schools can offer an honest accounting of the role of racism in American life that also honors the country’s achievements. They cannot continue to let Trumpists dominate this discussion.
One thing Democrats should not do: tear themselves apart with arguments over critical race theory itself, a set of ideas far better debated in law schools and graduate schools than at school board meetings.
Democrats would also be foolish to litigate whether moderates or progressives in Congress are most to blame for McAuliffe’s loss and the surprisingly weak showing of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey. They must all take responsibility for the unconscionable delays in enacting the president’s program. So must Biden.
The warning signs were there for months. Democrats buried a series of popular initiatives under a debate over how big the program should be. They bickered and dawdled while the president’s approval ratings burned, obsessing about adversaries within while ignoring the partisan enemy outside the gates. Is it any wonder that so many among the party’s supporters failed to show up on Tuesday?
Democrats must move swiftly to enact and defend the president’s program, and Senate Democrats cannot allow the filibuster to block action on voting rights, now a more urgent cause than ever. Republican state governments will continue to throw up roadblocks to voting — and Black voters who were key to Biden’s victory will not forgive the president or his party if they just walk away from the pivotal civil rights battle of our time.
Yes, Biden could see better days if the coronavirus subsides and the economy continues to improve. But the president cannot write off the collapse of his party’s vote in two states he won commandingly as an off-year fluke. His task was not only to defeat Trump but also to replace Trumpism with a more hopeful and practical vision of how our country can be governed.
This is a mission he has yet to accomplish.