Making sense of what Virginia means and doesn’t mean for Democrats in 2022

1. The headwinds of history are real

There’s just no escaping the fact that when one party controls the federal government, voters are going to take out any dissatisfactions they have on that party, deservedly or not. That dynamic was doubly true in Virginia, where Democrats also held a trifecta, controlling not just the executive, but the state House of Delegates and state Senate.

We can quibble about campaign messaging, and how much things came down to persuasion vs. base turnout, but the fact of the matter is that backlash reared its double-digit head in both Virginia and New Jersey. Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points last year, while Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe lost it by roughly two points; Biden won New Jersey by 16 points, while Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy secured reelection by just two-and-a-half points—a net swing of roughly 12 and 14 points, respectively, against Democrats just one year later.

The data point more to political trends than to the specifics of each race, so Democrats can expect some of the same forces to be at work in next year’s midterms when, by historical standards, Republicans stand a good chance of picking up the House, and maybe the Senate.

On the bright side, nothing is inevitable and the Senate has historically proven somewhat less vulnerable to the wild swings often seen in the lower chamber.  

2. Things will change between now and next November

Assuming Republicans can recreate what happened in Virginia also assumes that time will come to a standstill and none of the atmospherics will change over the next year. It’s preposterous.

By next year, Democrats will hopefully have passed two meaningful bills that spur job growth, provide considerable support to families, and make historic investments in combating climate change. Indeed, the bipartisan infrastructure bill received final passage Friday evening, sending it to President Biden’s desk. Those legislative accomplishments alone will be a major difference.

The Supreme Court will have also weighed in on two crucial abortion cases that will almost surely deal a blow to the constitutional right of women to seek an abortion.

Biden’s approval rating, goddess willing, will likely be in a different and hopefully more positive place than the over seven points underwater where it is now. Biden has already delivered a lot to the American people, including record job growth, a soaring stock market, and a vaccine rollout that has largely made the pandemic a back-burner issue for a substantial majority of Americans.  

Nobody can say exactly what the political environment will be like at this time next year, but without a doubt, it will have changed.

3. Democrats need a positive education message and it’s ready-made if they pass the Build Back Better bill

It’s still unclear how decisive a factor critical race theory and the broader issue of education was in the Virginia election, but one thing is for certain—Republicans plan to run on it in 2022.

In fact, running on something that’s merely a stand-in for stoking racism and white identity isn’t new for the GOP, it’s a return to its roots. On Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy jumped at the chance to say House Republicans plan on unveiling a “parents bill of rights.”

Okay, fine. Here’s Democrats’ parental bill of rights: We believe every parent should be able to access quality, affordable education for their child; we believe every parent should have access to quality, affordable child care; we believe every parent should have the piece of mind to know they can care for their child if they fall sick without going into debt. That’s why we included universal pre-K, child tax credits, a cap on child care costs, and paid family leave in the Build Back Better bill.

Republicans’ new education focus is a decades-old tactic: They always return to making every issue one of division that pits white against Black and brown. It’s been their bread and butter since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Democrats need to find a way to make every issue that Republicans seek to distort about shared interests that include everyone. Democrats just happen to have already included the perfect rebuttal for the GOP’s new education ploy in the Build Back Better bill currently under consideration.

4. Glenn Youngkin was unique and will be uniquely difficult to recreate

I have written about this at some length, but just to reiterate, Youngkin—a self-funded private equity guy with no political baggage and no well-documented record of overt fealty to Trump—is going to be difficult for congressional Republicans to replicate.

Perhaps most importantly, virtually none of them will have the backbone to bar Trump from their district/state, as Youngkin did. Many of them will actually owe their primary wins specifically to Trump, who will do exactly as he pleases as the campaign plays out.

Finally, Youngkin, with his fleece vest and happy warrior persona, made himself accessible to suburban voters who turned away from Trump in 2018 and 2020. He walked a line that few—if any—Republicans in the Trump era have proven capable of walking. Most of Trump’s handpicked slate of radicals simply won’t have the temperament to pull it off, particularly in the Senate.

In short, Republicans will have a bunch of Larry Elders (the Trumpy GOP candidate in the failed California gubernatorial recall) trying to run like Youngkin. Notably, Gov. Gavin Newsom beat the GOP recall effort in California with a 24-point margin that was practically identical to the margins in his 2018 election. It’s not the size of the margin that matters so much as it is the fact that Newsom, just two months earlier, didn’t suffer any drag from the national environment that both McAuliffe and Murphy did.

Part of that was likely the motivating specter of an Elder administration along with Biden’s approvals being closer to 50% when early voting began in the Golden State, as David Lauter of The L.A. Times points out. Biden’s approvals currently sit at about 43%, which would be an historic low at this point in a presidency … except that Trump sat at 38% around this same time in 2017.

5. It’s not all about the base or all about persuasion, it’s both and now

High turnout is no longer synonymous with Democratic wins. Virginia saw record turnout, and Democrats still lost the governorship by roughly two points.

The New York Times‘ Reid Epstein writes:

In this week’s election, Mr. McAuliffe won 200,000 votes more than Northam did when he won the 2017 election in a blowout. He won nearly 600,000 more votes than he did in 2013 when he beat Kenneth Cuccinelli II to become governor. He beat his internal turnout targets in Northern Virginia, Richmond and the Norfolk area. Turnout was strong in Black precincts, college towns and the suburbs, all traditional areas of strength for Democratic candidates.

Despite McAuliffe’s turnout successes, Youngkin won about 550,000 more votes than his GOP predecessor, Ed Gillespie, did in 2017. Youngkin also improved on Trump’s numbers everywhere, including in rural, exurban, and suburban parts of the state.

Democrats can no longer rely on the notion that if they just turn out their base, they’ll succeed. They need to turn out the base along with winning over a healthy piece of the suburban bloc that helped boost them to victory in 2018, and elevated Biden to the White House in 2020.

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