The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The two quotes that defined Democrats’ bad Election Day

A comment New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy made in 2019 about taxes was repeated in ads against his reelection campaign this year. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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If someone ventured to do an audio reconstruction of the 2021 elections, two quotes would stand out for their almost-incessant repetition.

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” and …

“If taxes are your issue, then New Jersey’s probably not your state.”

Each of the quotes was uttered by a Democratic candidate for governor — Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey, respectively — and Republicans played them on repeat for months at the end of the race. Ultimately, Republicans won Virginia, a state President Biden had carried by 10 points just a year before, and seemingly came out of nowhere to give Murphy a nail-biter in an even-bluer state.

Coverage of political “gaffes” is often overwrought, and it’s difficult to say with any certainty that either of these quotes was why Democrats struggled. There were no exit polls in New Jersey. Exit polls in Virginia showed voters thought parents should indeed have quite a bit of say over what schools teach, though the pro-GOP shift in the state spanned many different demographics and was similar between parents and non-parents.

History shows the Democrats’ struggles were also in line with how a party that had just won the White House usually fares — and in line with Biden’s declining political stock. What’s more, it’s not like McAuliffe and Murphy were the only Democrats to underperform. It was a bad day across the board for their party. In some cases, their margins were even worse than at the top of the ballot.

All of that said, the top of the ticket drives the day. To the extent McAuliffe and Murphy ran bad campaigns, it’s logical that would bleed into other parts of the ballot. Saying things that sound uncaring about parents’ input in education and unconcerned about high taxes fed into issues Republicans wanted to push hard anyway. You can both understand that the critical race theory stuff is often wildly mischaracterized and also that what McAuliffe said was very unhelpful.

And there were at least tacit admissions from both the McAuliffe and Murphy campaigns that they were quite worried about how these things were playing.

McAuliffe ultimately ran an ad explaining himself, which is the kind of thing any campaign strains to avoid. McAuliffe claimed in the ad that he had been taken out of context and played up things he did as governor responding to parents’ input about the education system.

McAuliffe’s quote at a September debate came amid a heated discussion about parents who wanted to remove sexually explicit books from school libraries — not broader school curriculum. But the money quote sounded quite broad.

Murphy’s comment, which was actually from 2019, was perhaps more defensible — and one could make an argument, even brutally honest. There is, after all, no disputing that New Jersey is among the top-taxed states. Murphy even doubled down in 2019.

But as the attack ads proliferated, he pledged at a late September debate that he would not raise taxes during his second term. When pressed, he claimed this was nothing new, even as local reporters covering the race were surprised. It was also weird in that he had raised taxes in his first term and his second-term agenda was looking pretty expensive. Perhaps Murphy realized he might be in some trouble before the rest of us did.

Murphy also claimed he was taken out of context — that his comment was about businesses coming to the state and not families. The quote, though, referenced both. “If you’re a one-issue voter and tax rate is your issue, either a family or a business, if that’s the only basis upon which you’re going to make a decision, we’re probably not your state,” he said in 2019.

The lesson from these quotes isn’t that they necessarily sunk McAuliffe or seriously jeopardized Murphy’s reelection bid; it’s that they fed right into some of the worst perceptions of Democrats. They were flippant quotes that effectively handed their opponents an issue to beat into the ground. And while the issues were different, the thrust was the same: that government and school officials are in charge.

Democrats have trended even more toward embracing bigger government in recent years. But it shouldn’t be surprising that voters might balk at the idea, implicit in the two quotes, that such complaints aren’t really welcome and that those officials know what they are doing with both your money and your kids’ education.

You can defend what’s done with tax money and the benefits of it, after all, without the “not your state” part — especially in a state in which those same high taxes are always the GOP’s issue, and a pretty good one in such gubernatorial races. You can make a case for a broad and diversified education curriculum and against banning books without rhetorically relegating parents to bystanders in the process.

Tuesday’s election certainly demonstrated the limits of the mandate Democrats got from voters in 2020. It should also be a reality check when it comes to how they talk about what the government should — and will — do for you.