During the Nov. 2 election, Republicans exceeded polling expectations and made unforeseen gains. In a FiveThirtyEight polling average for the Virginia gubernatorial contest, former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) led Republican financier Glenn Youngkin (R) by a commanding eight points in August; however, Youngkin won a two-point victory in a state that Biden won by 10 percentage points (NPR, 2021). Democrats also lost their Virginia House of Delegates majority.
The gubernatorial race in New Jersey, a state Biden carried by 16 percentage points, was also tight. With 98 percent of votes in, Governor Phil Murphy (D) beat Jack Ciatarelli (R) by less than three points, an outcome the GOP can still celebrate. Edward Durr (R) unexpectedly defeated N.J.’s Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D). Even in New York, voters rejected ballot proposals 1, 3, and 4, which would have given the Democratic state legislature more congressional redistricting power and improved voting accessibility (Ballotpedia, 2021).
Winning states that previously supported Democratic candidates was a definite plus for Republicans. It’s safe to say that Democrats must be scrambling to find solutions and will look to Congress and President Biden for hope. That being said, here are some key takeaways that Democrats must understand if they hope to maintain their congressional majorities for the 2022 midterms.
In a Virginia gubernatorial election that was truly in the national spotlight for 2021, Democrat Terry McAuliffe ran a campaign full of poor messaging, struggling to give popular Democratic positions enough airtime. Consequently, he allowed Republicans to become the issue-based force in this election. Instead of making progress, tolerance and opportunity the central premises of his campaign, he touted little more than a staccato of Trump-Youngkin comparisons, and the news media only magnified them. To be clear, it is not a faulty campaign strategy to tie Republican candidates to Trump, who is unpopular in Virginia as seen in the 2020 election. After all, the G.O.P. continues to peddle election lies, pass voter suppression laws and whitewash right-wing extremism at the behest of a disgraced, twice-impeached, narcissistic, xenophobic, one-term president. However, Democrats would also benefit from providing positive reasons to vote for them, especially with Trump not on the ballot. Elections are also about convincing people why they should vote for the candidate, not just why they should vote against their opponent.
Voters who turned out for Biden but sat out the 2021 election in Virginia or voted for Youngkin might have felt that with Trump off the ballot, McAuliffe was uninspiring and overused anti-Trump messaging. The threat of a second Trump term undoubtedly powered Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, but his rhetoric sounded an optimistic note as well, hence the slogan “Build Back Better.” In 2020, Democrats fought to reject Trump but also wanted to realize a watershed moment for perfecting the union. With Trump off the ballot, McAuliffe’s campaign faltered because of his lack of positive messaging and demand for change.
While McAuliffe made the race more about national issues and centralized the anti-Trump concept, Youngkin localized the race and evaded national pressures. His campaign still dog whistled in its push to ban critical race theory despite its absence from K-12 curriculums, but it wasn’t repelling enough to outweigh McAuliffe’s shortfall in communicating his record as governor or spelling out the future Virginia would hold under his tenure. On constructing the issue-based fabric of the state’s election, Youngkin led the charge by making education the highest priority behind COVID-19 and the economy––and truth be told, Republicans currently hold the public’s approval for educational policies (PBS, 2021). As for down ballot positions, the same logic applies to why the Virginia House of Delegates will flip to a Republican majority.
Former FiveThirtyEight Senior Writer Perry Bacon Jr. identified eight factors that divide Republican voters, including Trump’s evisceration of presidential behavioral norms, universal basic income, immigration policy and climate action (FiveThirtyEight, 2020). With Trump off the ballot and social media, and with Youngkin utilizing education issues to his advantage, Virginia Republicans came together more effectively than Democrats. More than 2.4 million Virginians voted for Biden in 2020, compared to just shy of 1.6 million for McAuliffe now. Turnout for the Republican nominee decreased only by 300,000 people in Virginia (NPR, 2021). In a similar fashion, Republicans nationwide––regardless of allegiance to Trump––can mobilize to achieve their top priority: taking Congress.
Youngkin’s victory, Murphy’s unexpectedly close race in New Jersey and overwhelming Republican triumphs in local races across the country could spell doom for Democrats in 2022, but not all hope is lost. American politics seem to seesaw over party control of Congress. From 1955 to 1995, the House had a Democratic majority, holding long streaks of Senate control within that time frame as well (U.S. Senate, House Archives). Since 1995, party control has switched four times for the House and seven times for the Senate. And given America’s stark polarization and need to align with party orthodoxy, the fate of political party control in Congress during midterm elections becomes increasingly tied to the President’s approval rating (Gallup, 2018). This shows that Democrats, with a 50/50 Senate, a mere eight-seat edge in the House and a low presidential approval rating are exceptionally vulnerable (FiveThirtyEight, 2021).
But despite its vulnerability, there is another takeaway about today’s Democratic Party. It remains very resilient in the face of an avalanche of novel challenges. Republicans, with an affinity for election denialism and divisive politics, continue to relentlessly gather momentum. Anti-majoritarian Senatorial procedures like the filibuster have compromised Democratic visions for change. The challenge of bridging gaps between lawmakers as far as self-proclaimed democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to as far as conservative, coal-funded Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has never been more mind-numbing. Time is ticking for climate action. The House’s Democratic majority is tiny. The Senate’s Democratic majority is a seat shy of being gone.
And yet, amid these challenges, Democrats have powered through, enacting changes for Americans. They enacted the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan with zero Republican votes, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that will usher in comprehensive infrastructure investments after President Obama and Trump’s failures to do so. And now, despite cutbacks by Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), Democrats are on the cusp of passing Biden’s social and climate agenda, the Build Back Better Framework, with again, zero Republican congressional support. The Democratic Party is the working class’s largest and most important politically organized avenue for positive change in America. Democrats deliver.
Manchin and Sinema, however, hurt the Democrats’ potential to hold on to their congressional majorities next year. The two Senators are curtailing climate investment, shrinking the corporate tax rate increase, stripping paid leave and weakening Medicare advances in the Build Back Better Framework. The delays they are creating for its passage hurt Democrats electorally. Media headlines such as “Dems in Disarray!” (The New York Times, 2021), “GOP Basks in Dem Discord” (POLITICO, 2021) and “Liberal frustration imperils quick Dem social spending deal” (POLITICO, 2021) reflect the public’s growing pessimism about the party’s ability to fuel positive change.
Build Back Better will pass. Fumbling its passage would spell political suicide for Democrats. However, this incoming victory could have occurred before the 2021 elections if Manchin and Sinema discontinued their poorly-justified attacks on popular, much-needed reforms the Biden Administration proposed. Democrats must pass the bill to reverse the woe and disillusionment among its base and potential Independent supporters. That way, Democrats will have a semblance of opportunity for the preservation of a legislative-executive trifecta through the midterms.
This election has shown that Democratic candidates need to put in more work than Republicans to persuade voters to turn out in this current political climate. Republicans seem to understand the political binary of the United States better than Democrats do; too many of them will support the party no matter the promise, ideology or person it represents. On the other hand, Democrats evidently turn out more handily when the struggle between Democrats and Republicans is viewed as existential, typical of presidential races, although Democrats should be wary of labeling too many races as such.
The Democratic Party should promulgate messages of positivity in campaigning. Voters should cherish the fact that the party has such a large ideological tent capable of conducting good-faith negotiations. Congress must pass transformative legislation like Build Back Better, which has overwhelming majority support (Quinnipiac Poll, 2021). Even if the Democratic establishment and electorate take these steps, the historical precedent of political inertia favoring the opposition party could rear its ugly head and do the work for victorious Republicans. But there is only one way to find out.