The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion High-profile GOP governors are losing popularity. Democrats should take note.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in his office at the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 15. (Steve Helber/AP)
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Democrats are getting some tough love. Pollsters, analysts and campaign leaders are telling them they have overreached and ignored the legitimate cultural concerns of voters. Less has been said about Republicans, who will have the wind at their backs in the midterm elections, which have historically lifted the party out of power, and who are benefiting from the Democratic president’s poor polling numbers. Nevertheless, Republicans have their own problems.

Some of the highest-profile Republican governors are unpopular. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia (41 percent approve, 43 percent disapprove), who once kept the defeated former president at arm’s length, immediately embraced MAGA base-pleasing policies that have proved unpopular and drawn a swift backlash. Large majorities in Virginia support environmental laws Youngkin wants to repeal. They also oppose Youngkin-favored bans on teaching about racism and GOP proposals to prohibit abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

Likewise, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas is losing ground in a general-election matchup against Beto O’Rourke. In January, O’Rourke trailed by 11 points; the gap is now down to seven points, according to a survey by the Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler, and 49 percent of Texans think the state is on the “wrong track.”

“While the GOP is pushing to expunge any teaching of critical race theory in classrooms,” the Morning News reported, “59 percent of all Texas voters say they agree that K-12 teachers should be permitted to discuss how historical examples of discrimination in U.S. laws apply to racial inequalities today.” Abbott’s anti-immigration hype is also losing favor: “53 percent of voters say the wall spending is wasteful or could be better spent.” Overall, Abbott’s job rating has sunk from 61 percent approval in April 2020 to 50 percent this month, with disapproval shooting up to 46 percent from 23 percent.

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Yet there is no drumbeat warning Republicans not to overreach. They seem to believe voters will ignore their excesses.

It bears mentioning that the GOP’s unfavorability is considerably higher than that of the Democratic Party, according to YouGov polling. And Democrats should draw a few lessons from this.

For starters, voters remain ornery, seemingly having grown frustrated with their choices within months, if not weeks, of electing them. Perhaps they don’t pay enough attention to substance during the campaign, prompting buyer’s remorse as soon as their candidate starts doing what he said he would. Alternatively, as in the case of Youngkin, campaigning deceptively to hide one’s actual agenda turns out poorly when voters realize they’ve been had. It might behoove the media to start covering more substance during campaigns.

Second, we are in an era — very much evident in the 2016 election battle between two candidates with high unfavorables — when voters don’t like both parties. That might be a function of politicians’ cluelessness and failure to build broad coalitions. It might also be that voters have unrealistic expectations that politicians can quickly solve immense, multifaceted problems. Perpetual impatience breeds perpetual dissatisfaction, a phenomenon authoritarians exploit by promising to fix everything, characterizing complex problems as simple and demonizing democracy.

Third, a result of excessive minority power is gridlock at the national level. While voters tend to hold incumbents responsible for “failing to get things done,” they avert their eyes from the main sources of paralysis: anti-majoritarian features of our government (e.g., the filibuster, or a Supreme Court unrepresentative of the country ready to rewrite laws to fit the minority agenda). In any case, voters have a point: The current system impedes bold, popular measures (gun safety, for instance) to address big challenges.

Unfortunately for Democrats, Republicans are much better at marshaling iron discipline to demonize the other side. It helps when you have an entirely captive media at your disposal to spread and repeat your smears. Democrats, especially those in the White House, need to get over their reluctance toward hardball politics. They face an extreme, authoritarian opponent but remain fixated on bipartisan agreement and decline to devise a single accurate attack (e.g., that the GOP has become an anti-democratic cult).

If they are to minimize losses in November, Democrats need to make gubernatorial election referendums on Republican incumbents and their radical, unpopular policies (e.g., Texas’s antiabortion bounty law). In addition to putting together a compelling message about their own accomplishments, Democratic candidates for the House and Senate need to make Republicans’ reckless conduct — willingness to default on our debt, plans to impeach President Biden, nonstop obstruction and anti-democratic impulses — front and center in their campaigns.

It might not be a winning slogan for a bumper sticker, but it does boil down to: “At least we’re trying. The other guys are nuts.”