Early Thoughts on a Very Tough Night

There is no other way to put it, last night was a disaster for the Democrats. How we respond in the coming days and weeks will set the stage for 2022

One year ago, Joe Biden won Virginia by ten points. Four years ago, Ralph Northan won it by nine. Last night, Terry McAuliffe, a well-known former governor, lost it by two points. The implications of off-year elections are historically overstated and over-interpreted. There are local factors at play that are largely irrelevant to the upcoming midterms. If you want to chalk up the Virginia loss to specific failings of the McAuliffe campaign or the challenges of a party winning three straight races, I encourage you to turn your gaze to even more Democratic New Jersey where Democrat Phil Murphy is locked in a close race for reelection.

Last night’s results cannot be read as anything other than a giant warning sign for the party as we think about near-term legislative strategy and our message for 2022 and beyond.

There is still a lot to learn about what happened, what worked, and what didn’t in the days and weeks to come. I was in the White House when Democrats lost the Virginia governor’s race in 2009 and the House in 2010. Right or wrong, the conventional wisdom about what happened calcifies quickly and drives strategy for years. Here are some very early thoughts on how to interpret the results.

A Shock to the Suburban Coalition

Typically, the party in power loses off-year elections because their base is complacent or worn down by slow progress, and the other side is fired up. That’s not what happened last night; turnout was high on both sides. Youngkin won because he convinced enough Joe Biden and Ralph Northam voters to switch sides. Virginia is a state dominated by suburbs with a large college-educated population. These are the voters who moved strongly in the Democratic direction when Trump came on the scene. Youngkin won enough of those voters and he did it without sacrificing votes from Trump’s base. In Virginia at least, without Trump on the ballot, Republicans are winning back Romney-Clinton voters faster than Democrats are winning back Obama-Trump voters or finding new voters. If that trend holds, there is no math that gives Democrats the House, Senate, or White House. Figuring out how to win these voters back without depressing our base is job number one for the party. This goal doesn’t rely on turnout or persuasion. It relies on both.

A Daunting Democratic Communications Deficit

The way the race played out in Virginia is yet more evidence Republicans have a massive communications advantage. This advantage helped Youngkin in two ways. First, Youngkin made the teaching of Critical Race Theory a major talking point, which is impressive because it is a complete nonissue. A fake, Trumped-up controversy promoted by the Right-Wing media. There is not a single student being taught CRT anywhere in the world, let alone Virginia. Yet, Youngkin was able to make a fake issue very real to Virginia voters. In a Washington Post/Schar poll from before the election, education was Virginia voters’ number one concern. Youngkin led by nine among the voters who named education as their top priority. McAuliffe led them by more than 30 earlier in the race. CRT went straight from Fox News to the top of voters’ minds in Virginia. As Greg Sargent recently wrote:

Youngkin and his allies have transmitted some of their most visceral and hallucinogenic versions of the anti-CRT demagoguery straight to the base via right-wing media … Matt Gertz of Media Matters estimates that Fox News ran up to 100 segments on CRT in Virginia last spring, even though it isn’t taught in Virginia schools.

The Right-Wing is able to create an alternative reality and then offer solutions to fake problems that people believe are Democrats’ fault. CRT probably played less of a role than a lot of pundits suggest, but the fact that Youngkin was able to make it an issue should be a giant warning sign about what is to come in 2022.

Second, because the GOP has created a powerful, self-serving media infrastructure, Youngkin used the Right-Wing media to communicate his MAGA credentials to the base without offending the Independents and Trump-skeptical Republicans who gave Biden a ten-point victory last year.

Youngkin can be a fleece-wearing suburban dad/political outsider on local TV and a fully indoctrinated soldier in Trump’s army when he appears on Right Wing media. Democrats are still primarily relying on the traditional press to get our message out and we lack the firepower to make Youngkin pay a price for this duplicity. I have written before (and will write again) about how Democrats can solve this problem; but until we do, there will be more nights like last night.

Pass BBB/BIF Right Now

Twitter was ablaze with hot takes last night from people attributing the loss in Virginia to the mess in Congress. Some blamed Manchin and Sinema for slowing the process down. Others saw the loss as evidence Biden leaned too far Left. Some centrists wanted to hit pause on the process. I have yet to see a piece of evidence supporting any of these takes. I am skeptical the legislative impasse played a significant role in the race. It certainly didn’t depress Democratic turnout.

However, I think this unexpected loss should be a swift kick in everyone’s rear to get both bills passed ASAP. If the too-long debate hurt our chances in this election, it was likely because the missed deadlines, disagreements, and disappointments were fodder for a never-ending cycle of bad news for Democrats. Brokering compromises on Capitol Hill is a necessary part of the job for a president but it is a diminishing one. The public elects a president, but they tend to punish a prime minister.

The longer we delay, the longer the spotlight will linger on Democratic disarray and prevent us from making an argument for why Republicans cannot be allowed to sniff power again. Further debate and delay serve no purpose.

Youngkin’s “Trump Light” Act Will Be Difficult to Replicate

Before most of the networks even called the race, mainstream Republicans already deified Youngkin as their new savior. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called on Youngkin to consider running for president. Prior to the vote counting, Axios called Youngkin the “prototype” for Republican candidates.

There are many lessons to learn from Youngkin’s campaign, but I would pump the brakes on some of the immediate hagiography. His “Trump Light” act is going to be very hard for most Republicans to replicate. Youngkin is a legitimate political outsider who ran against a former governor and the ultimate political insider in a state where Democrats have controlled the governorship for 16 of the last 20 years. The vast majority of Republican candidates are politicians and MAGA media types who spent the last five years offering fealty to Trump. Pulling off Yongkin’s balancing act will be near impossible for the leading candidates in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

Biden v. Trump

One billion pounds of digital ink (is that thing?) will be spent analyzing the role President Biden and former President Trump played in this race. None of those takes will wait for actual data and most of them will only confirm the pre-existing biases of the person offering the take. It is a fact: Joe Biden’s approval ratings are lower at this point than any other president in history’s approval ratings. Other than Trump’s numbers of course. There is a tendency in these situations to claim the unpopular president is dragging down their party, but that is a very simplistic view of how politics works. There are many factors that affect a president’s approval rating. Most of them are completely outside the president’s control. I am not arguing that better messaging, more success in Congress, or a less chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan would not have helped Biden’s current political standing. But it is just as likely the main forces (the pandemic and inflation) dragging down Biden are also dragging down Democrats across the country. There is a tendency for political punditry to make everything about the president. That is a mistake. We are not one speech or a cool event away from fixing this problem. 

McAullife’s campaign tried to tie Yougkin to Trump in the most obvious ways possible. Maybe it was the wrong strategy or maybe it was just poorly executed. But Trump is going to be a factor in 2022 and likely to be on the ballot in 2024. Trump is absent from the conversation for all but the most engaged voters. He didn’t campaign in Virginia. He’s not on mainstream TV or on social media. Most voters are not thinking about Trump at all, let alone obsessing about his return to the political scene. That is going to change in 2022 when Trump hits the campaign trail in places like Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Democrats will need a message that warns about the looming danger of Trumpism without looking like we are obsessed with re-litigating the past.

These are early thoughts from a sleep-addled mind. I will have more to add in the coming days, but the main takeaway is that Democrats have a lot of work to do in the coming months to reverse these trends and hold onto our majorities. There is no time to wait and the stakes are too high.