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4 takeaways on Virginia, New Jersey and Election Day 2021

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down what the Virginia and New Jersey elections results could mean for the 2022 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Election Day 2021 is in the books, with New Jersey and Virginia holding governor’s races and a smattering of other contests around the country.

The big news is Republican Glenn Youngkin being elected governor of Virginia, a blue-trending state President Biden carried by 10 points just a year ago. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, came in New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was dealing with a reelection campaign that was much tighter than expected in an even-bluer state.

Below are some takeaways on that and other races. This post will be updated as we get further results from New Jersey and elsewhere.

1. Bad news — and omens — for Democrats

The reason we focus on Virginia and New Jersey isn’t because we love them so much (though some of us do). It’s because these states are the only ones to vote statewide on this particular Election Day. And they provide pretty clear indicators of how the two parties are doing.

It’s not a pretty picture for Democrats.

Youngkin is currently defeating former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) by about two points — a 12-point swing on net from 2020.

In New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli turned Murphy’s reelection race into an unexpected nail-biter. With approximately 87 percent of the ballots cast, he’s at 49.7 percent to Murphy’s 49.6 percent. That’s currently a 16-point shift from last year.

(Republicans also notably fared well in New York state, particularly Long Island.)

Recent history suggests those kinds of shifts, more often than not, mean such a party is in line for a good midterm election the following year. In fact, in five of the past seven post-presidential Election Days, the party that over-performed its presidential vote margins from the previous year in these races went on to flip the House, the Senate or both a year later.

Republicans only need to win five House seats and one Senate seat to do that. Tuesday showed they have the wind at their back, and they don’t need much of a gust.

That doesn’t mean anything is set in stone, but even before Tuesday night, it was clear this wasn’t going to be an affirmation of Democrats’ electoral superiority. And it was far from that. They’ll now have to figure out how to avoid anything close to a repeat in a year’s time.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D- Va.) spelled out the frustration felt by Democrats in vulnerable districts. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

2. A road map for the GOP after(?) Trump

The Virginia governor’s race was an interesting proposition when it comes to former president Donald Trump. While Democrats didn’t generally focus that much on Trump in such races before — perhaps because Trump was so ever-present anyway — McAuliffe pushed the issue, and hard. He tried to turn Youngkin into Trump in khakis and a fleece vest.

Two lessons:

  1. It didn’t work.
  2. The result was not an affirmation of Trump.

Exit polls showed a majority of voters viewed Youngkin favorably, compared to 42 percent who said the same for Trump. Youngkin was also winning 17 percent of voters who viewed Trump unfavorably, which is a big number.

Trump’s 42 percent favorable rating was also slightly lower than his 44 percent approval rating in 2020 Virginia exit polls, though not outside the margin of error.

Not to make everything about Trump, but the GOP’s ability to distance itself from him — and Democrats’ ability or inability to tie Republicans to him — matters in upcoming elections, especially with Trump out of office.

Youngkin provided a road map for the GOP when Trump isn’t front-of-mind for most people. Whether Trump will stay so out-of-mind ahead of the 2024 election is a very relevant question.

What also matters is whether Republicans can actually put forward candidates like Youngkin and perhaps Ciattarelli who can effectively craft their own brand. That’s especially true given how much some top GOP Senate candidates have tied themselves to Trump in the service of winning primaries — and how much Republicans might nominate candidates more extreme and with more baggage than Youngkin because they have Trump’s backing.

3. The pivotal school issue

The temptation after every race is to talk about how everything the winner did worked and everything the loser did failed. Things are often much more nuanced than that. And given that the national environment seemed to matter quite a bit — see: New Jersey and Republicans apparently sweeping the other statewide Virginia races — we can’t lay this all at McAuliffe’s feet.

But the top of the ballot matters. And even aside from McAuliffe’s failure to tar Youngkin with Trump, there was his inability to shake the school issue.

McAuliffe birthed what seemed like a million attack ads when he uttered, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Weeks later, his campaign effectively affirmed this comment was hurting him by running an ad explaining the whole thing.

In isolation, it might have been survivable, but the backdrop was unhappiness with how the state’s schools handled reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic and a controversy over sexual assault in highly important Loudoun County in Northern Virginia.

Exit polls showed 51 percent of voters said parents should have “a lot” of say over what schools teach, while 33 percent said they should have “some.” Another 13 percent said either “not much” or “none at all.”

Youngkin also won 58 percent of men with children, compared to the 49 percent Trump took last year.

Loudoun proved to be big for Youngkin. He narrowed Biden’s 25-point win there in 2020 to just more than a 10-point advantage for McAuliffe.

4. Setbacks for the far-left

Moving beyond Virginia: To the extent some on the left might argue that the antidote for the above is for the party to move further to the left, there was plenty to rebut that.

Speaking of comments that didn’t wear well on voters, there’s the whole “defund the police” movement that was spurred amid racial-justice protests — especially after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. Democratic leaders seemed to pretty quickly recognize the problems with that talking point, and tried to nip it in the bud.

Election results in Minneapolis on Tuesday validated that position. A proposal to replace the Minneapolis police department with a public-safety department run by the city council failed by a strong margin — in a very blue city with that very recent past.

Meanwhile in Buffalo, democratic socialist India Walton, who pulled off a shocking upset of Mayor Byron Brown for the Democratic nomination, was losing by a wide margin to the write-in option, which seems very likely to be overwhelmingly composed of Brown voters.

Losing to a write-in candidate would be a pretty remarkable feat. We saw a similar scenario in the 2010 Alaska Senate race when Republican nominee Joe Miller lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R) write-in campaign after defeating her in a primary. The reason: Voters overall overwhelmingly disliked Miller, even in a friendly electorate for the party.

In Seattle, moderate former city council president Bruce Harrell held a commanding lead in the mayoral race over more-liberal current city council President Lorena González. And that’s all on top of New York’s widely expected election of Eric Adams, who ran as a relatively moderate candidate in that high-profile Democratic primary.

Further-left candidates did win other mayoral races. In Pittsburgh, state Rep. Ed Gainey (D) won after defeating the incumbent mayor in a primary, and in Boston, Elizabeth Warren-backed Michelle Wu defeated a more-moderate opponent. Both are Democrats.