Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial election was not a total surprise. Nervous Democrats could sense it coming for weeks. But the full impact of the loss in a state that Biden won by 10 points just 12 months ago, along with a far closer gubernatorial race than anyone expected in New Jersey, which Biden won by 16 points, triggered alarms across the party.
Next year, the entire Democratic Party will face the voters, with Republicans more confident than ever that they have the issues, whether education, inflation or the border, as well as the strategy and a strong tail wind to drive Democrats from power in the House and Senate, and thereby short-circuit the final two years of Biden’s first term in office. How quickly Democrats absorb Tuesday’s results and begin to respond will determine how well they can hold down expected losses in the coming midterms.
It is always the case that too much can be read into the results of these off-year elections. Maybe it was just the patterns of history in Virginia, which for decades has seen the party that holds the White House lose the governorship. McAuliffe in 2013 was the lone exception. Similarly, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who was in a close race with Republican Jack Ciattarelli, faced a history of incumbent Democrats struggling to win a second term.
But Democrats would be foolhardy to underestimate what happened Tuesday. To lose a state like Virginia, which has been trending Democratic for a decade, and to struggle so much in New Jersey suggests that, unless things change, only the bluest of states or districts are likely to be safe in 2022.
National and local factors contributed to Tuesday’s results. Biden’s sagging approval ratings and the failure of Democrats, after months of negotiations, to pass two major pieces of the president’s domestic legislative agenda were part of it. So too were powerful local issues such as schools and public safety, which worked to the advantage of the GOP. Inflation concerns topped Biden’s claims of economic progress. In Virginia, Youngkin, a political newcomer, proved to be a more adept candidate than former governor McAuliffe, whose campaign was as much about the past as the future.
McAuliffe’s fortunes flagged at the very moment that Biden’s approval ratings began to plummet in late summer. Whether it was the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the absence of action by congressional Democrats or a public spooked and frustrated by the delta variant of the coronavirus that brought a spike in covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, voters began to see the president in a less favorable light. On Tuesday in Virginia, Biden’s approval rating was 45 percent and his disapproval 54 percent, according to early exit polls, not significantly better than Donald Trump, who was 42 percent positive, 54 percent negative.
Presidential approval ratings ebb and flow. Rare is the president who doesn’t suffer setbacks and then, in many cases, rebound. It happened to Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, though only after their parties suffered significant midterm defeats. If the Democrats get their acts together in Congress and the pandemic eases significantly, it’s possible that the public could begin to look more favorably on the president and his party, though their problems go beyond just that.
That, however, is only if those things come together. Biden’s team remains confident that Congress will pass both his infrastructure package and his even-bigger package of social spending and climate initiatives and that, with those wins, the economy will improve enough to give Democrats something positive to talk about next year. Right now, with inflation worrying many voters, the economy is helping the GOP. On Tuesday, a third of Virginia voters said the economy was the most important issue in determining their vote, according to preliminary exit polls, and Youngkin was capturing a majority of those voters.
Even if Congress approves the rest of Biden’s domestic spending agenda, other challenges loom. Still pending are the issues of voting rights, immigration, police reform and the future of the filibuster, all of which threaten to split the party again.
Education, normally a Democratic strength, emerged as a potent issue for Youngkin, and other Republicans are certain to try to replicate his success. In Virginia, among the roughly one-quarter of voters that cited the issue as the most important in their vote, Youngkin was winning a majority of them.
The topic encompasses everything from curriculum issues, particularly the flash point of race and racial history and what is being taught in schools, to frustrations over school closures during the worst of the pandemic that cost many students precious months of classroom teaching. Democrats haven’t found an effective way to debate these issues.
It wasn’t just Virginia or New Jersey that suggested Democrats will need to regroup. In races across the country, there were signs that voters see the party as having moved too far to the left, even as its progressive wing has been flexing its muscles.
In Virginia, the exit polls showed that a majority of voters said the party is too liberal. New Yorkers elected Democrat Eric Adams as their new mayor after a campaign in which he made public safety a prime issue and presented himself as more centrist than liberal. In Minneapolis, voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum to dismantle the police department a year after the Black Lives Matter movement had elevated the issue of police reform to the front of the progressive agenda. In Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown, who lost the primary to socialist India Walton, appeared to have been reelected as a write-in candidate.
David Plouffe, who helped guide Obama to his two election victories and who knows how losses in 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia foreshadowed a debacle for the party in 2010, issued a grim warning to Democrats as the votes were being counted. Appearing on MSNBC, he called the current environment “dark and bleak,” adding, “I’m bullish that the case will get better in the next 12 months, but it’s pretty dark right now.” If things don’t improve, he said, Democrats could face a nightmare scenario next November.
The ways in which McAuliffe and Youngkin ran their campaigns offered additional clues to the coming year. McAuliffe, worried about Democratic complacency, sought to rerun Democratic campaigns of the Trump years, invoking the specter of the former president at every turn and hammering Youngkin as a Trump clone. Turnout wasn’t the problem in Virginia. It set a record for a gubernatorial race. It was who turned out and how they voted that sunk McAuliffe and the rest of the Democratic ticket.
Democrats had made substantial inroads in the suburbs during Trump’s presidency, but Youngkin cut into those suburban margins, a success that if repeated around the country next November could have devastating consequences for Biden’s party. In Loudoun County, for example, Youngkin was running about 10 points behind McAuliffe after Biden won the county by 25 points and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) won it by 20 points in 2017.
Meanwhile, Youngkin rolled up big margins in some of Virginia’s smallest and reddest counties. The returns highlighted again how badly Democratic support has cratered in small towns and rural areas of the country. This has major, longer-term consequences for congressional and legislative elections unless Democrats find an effective strategy to reach voters in these areas, which at this point they do not have.
Youngkin also provided Republicans with a possible guide for navigating a GOP coalition that includes Trump loyalists and Trump antagonists. Youngkin gratefully accepted Trump’s endorsement and echoed some of Trump’s positions, even pandering to the claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by highlighting the need for greater election integrity. But he largely kept his distance from the former president.
His race won’t be the last word on whether Republicans can keep Trump from costing them votes in the future, as many GOP primaries next year will feature competition over who can most closely embrace the former president, potentially saddling the party with candidates who will struggle to win a general election.
Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, Biden landed at Joint Base Andrews after his European trip, just as Youngkin was giving his victory speech. The split-screen imagery on television was not lost on viewers. A president who had hoped his overseas visit would help burnish his standing at home was returning with even more challenges confronting him.
Biden’s first order of business will be to bring a quick conclusion to the debate over his social spending and climate bill and force votes in the House and Senate. That will only be a start to the work his jittery party now demands. Democrats worried that they could have a long night Tuesday. It turned out even worse than they feared.