If Tuesday’s elections were the first concrete readings of political conditions since Joe Biden became president, Democrats may be headed straight into a hurricane.
A slim, come-from-behind victory in bright-blue New Jersey would qualify as good news for Democrats from this election — and that’s bad news for them looking forward. Democrats’ House and Senate majorities look more vulnerable than ever. And for Republicans, the results from New Jersey, Virginia and in local races elsewhere fueled their already-rosy outlook for the 2022 midterms.
Glenn Youngkin took down Terry McAuliffe in Virginia, and the GOP appears poised for a full sweep of the three statewide offices on the ballot for the first time in more than a decade. Republicans are also on the brink of taking back the state House after only two years of Democratic control.
Then there’s New Jersey, where Republican Jack Ciattarelli led Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy for most of Tuesday night, though Murphy is hoping to salvage a narrow victory — a year after watching Biden carry his state by 16 points — with votes from late-reporting blue counties.
Here’s what we learned from Tuesday’s off-year elections:
The suburbs swing back
Youngkin’s campaign made no secret of its plans to target Virginia’s vote-rich suburbs, convinced that he was a Republican who could claw back some of the support the GOP had lost under Trump.
It worked, even if the counties around Washington and Richmond are still painted blue on the map. Youngkin cut into McAuliffe’s margins in places like Loudoun County, losing by 10 points in the same place then-President Donald Trump lost by 25 last year. Youngkin won 35 percent of the vote in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous municipality — easily a McAuliffe hold, but a major GOP improvement from Trump’s 28 percent and 2017 gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie’s 31 percent.
Youngkin didn’t only gain in Northern Virginia. He flipped Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, which was a longtime Republican bastion that moved into Democrats’ column recently. Same with the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake in the state’s southeast corner.
The results left Democrats reeling, with some operatives warning that efforts to treat suburban voters like part of the party’s base would doom their candidates.
“For all those who have written off persuasion and swing voters as a thing of the past: Hate to break it to them, but they’re very real,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist and Virginia native.
Driving those results: The Republican Party, after hemorrhaging women and independent voters during the Trump era, saw Youngkin over-perform with independents and dramatically improve the party’s standing with women. Far from simply juicing the GOP’s pro-Trump base, he proved a Republican could assemble a broader coalition of right-leaning voters who may have scorned the former president — but who are willing to forget him.
Like Virginia, New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, is home to suburbs of cities in other states — and the same phenomenon was evident there. While all the votes aren’t counted as of early Wednesday morning, Ciattarelli had a narrow lead in Bergen County, across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, which Biden won by about 16 points.
Rural America roars again
Youngkin’s gains in the suburbs were necessary — but not sufficient — to overtake McAuliffe. He also needed Trump Country to show up in full force, and it did.
Trump, predictably, issued a statement crediting “my BASE” for Youngkin’s victory. But in counties throughout rural Virginia, Youngkin ran even with or, often, ahead of Trump. He won 66 percent of the vote in Roanoke County, in Southwest Virginia, up from Trump’s 60 percent. In Bedford County, where Trump won 73 percent of the vote, Youngkin won 79 percent.
Moreover, turnout in many of these counties easily surpassed the last governor’s race four years ago, a sign that Trump’s base was motivated to turn out without Trump on the ticket himself, or even an in-person Trump rally.
The other side of that coin: Democratic candidates continue to sink to new lows in rural areas, especially among white voters. According to exit polls, Youngkin won white voters without a college degree — who are overrepresented in rural areas — by a 3-to-1 margin, 76 percent to 24 percent. Trump won those voters by a smaller, 62 percent to 38 percent margin against Biden in 2020.
Democrats’ missing message
McAuliffe spent his entire campaign yoking Youngkin to Trump. He hit hard on the pandemic, and like many Democrats, he believed the Texas abortion ban would turn Democratic voters out.
Abortion, McAuliffe said this summer, “will be a huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote.”
It wasn’t. Fewer than one in 10 voters said abortion was the most important issue to them, according to exit polls. Just 14 percent said the same thing about the coronavirus.
What did matter were education and the economy — both issues on which Youngkin had the edge. The Republican raised fears about so-called “critical race theory” and pummeled McAuliffe for saying during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
What did Democrats have to offer? Not much.
The party’s infrastructure and social spending plans are still locked up in Congress, and the Democratic president’s public approval rating is in the tank.
Doug Herman, who was a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, said McAuliffe’s campaign mismanaged the debate over education and critical race theory.
“I don’t think they got on top of that and turned it around the way that they should have,” he said.
But the elections on Tuesday laid bare broader messaging problems for the party, too.
“The Democratic Party and Joe Biden were elected to solve problems, and all they’re doing is fighting about price tags,” Herman said. “If Congress doesn’t pass a bill soon so we can get out there and start campaigning on it, we’ve got nothing to run on.”
High turnout won’t save Democrats
Seven years ago, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) was nearly swept out of office by the 2014 Republican midterm wave, barely hanging on in a race that was far more competitive than anyone expected.
That year, fewer than 2.2 million Virginians showed up to vote in what was, nationally, the lowest-turnout midterm election in a century. The result: the closest the GOP had come to a Virginia victory since 2009.
In this election, at least 3.3 million votes have already been counted, with more left to tally. That shattered records for off-year elections — and Democratic claims that high turnout always helps their candidates.
Progressives have a problem
While Democrats were reeling across the country on Tuesday, the electorate’s rightward shift robbed progressives of some notable opportunities to carve out victories on the night.
Yes, Michelle Wu won Boston’s mayoral election. And in Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, a progressive prosecutor, won a second term.
But even in Democratic-rich swaths of the country, the electorate was hewing closer to the center than the left. In Buffalo, N.Y., India Walton, a democratic socialist who had defeated the city’s Democratic mayor, Byron Brown, in the primary, appeared to be losing to Brown’s write-in campaign. In Seattle, moderate Bruce Harrell was running ahead of progressive Lorena González in that city’s mayoral race.
Perhaps most significantly, in Minneapolis, voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure to overhaul the city’s police department. The measure, which had exposed Democrats to criticism that it aimed to “defund the police” at a time when the city was experiencing a surge in violence, would have replaced the department with a “Department of Public Safety” and eliminated minimum staffing requirements.
And that was on top of the victories for moderates that were already baked in — but finalized on Tuesday. Eric Adams, a moderate Democrat, won the mayor’s race in New York City. And in Ohio, Shontel Brown won the special election to fill the seat vacated by former Rep. Marcia Fudge, after defeating Nina Turner, a prominent progressive Democrat, in the primary earlier this year.
Progressive Democrats can make a credible case that they aren’t the problem. Bernie Sanders isn’t the president. Joe Biden is.
But in the aftermath of Tuesday’s results, the pressure to pass any kind of infrastructure and social spending plans will intensify, as Democrats fear a repeat blowout in the midterms next year. The resulting drift of the party is not likely to go to the left, but to the two centrist senators in the middle of those negotiations.
As one strategist put it in a text message late Tuesday, “Tonight really empowers [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema.”