The year-to-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey tend to get over-scrutiny, and the results try to gain a deeper understanding of what they portend next year’s midterm elections that determine which party controls Congress.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Tuesday’s election:
VIRGINIAN DEMOCRATS SEE GREATEST FEARS
Democrats’ worst fears are that they are on track for next year’s mid-term elections, like in 2010, and that they cannot use the ghost of former President Donald Trump to stop it.
Those fears grew much stronger after Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia.
Just a year ago, President Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points, and if Democrats can’t generate more enthusiasm than their governor candidate Terry McAuliffe, they are likely to be ousted in Congress.
In Virginia, governors are limited to one term, and elections are held in odd years, making them the primary means of measuring voter sentiment ahead of the midterm elections. This is usually a warning to the ruling party in Washington, and this year was no exception.
McAuliffe, who was elected governor of Virginia in 2013, failed to excite voters amid serious obstacles faced by Democrats, including falling Biden polls, a stalemate in Congress over the president’s economic agenda, and an ongoing pandemic.
Democrats have only five votes in the House of Representatives and one vote in the Senate. Historically, the ruling party has almost always lost its seats in Congress. But if nationally 2022 is something like Virginia 2021, Democrats will lose much more than usual.
YANGKIN POINTS THE WAY OF THE GOP
The diversification of states with a large proportion of college graduates like Virginia was an insoluble enigma for the GOP during the political era dominated by former President Donald Trump. But Yangkin seems to have cracked the code.
A former wealth manager, Youngkin introduced himself as a non-threatening suburban father in a fleece vest. He embraced Trump just enough to win the GOP primary and grow his party base, but was also able to grab the attention of more moderate voters by talking about financial management, investing in schools, and campaigning without the former president on his side.
This has paid off, according to the AP VoteCast poll. While most voters were negative about Trump, about half were positive about Yangkin.
Yangkin’s approach to Trump at arm’s length doesn’t seem to hurt him with GOP voters. A majority of Yangkin’s voters – roughly 8 out of 10 – said the candidate had the right support for Trump. Roughly one in 10 said they supported the former president too much, and many said Yangkin was supporting Trump too little.
Look for more Republicans next year who will try to model themselves after Yangkin in wavering areas – refusing to disavow Trump but not hugging him too close, and adapting their messages for both the former president’s most ardent voters and convincing suburbanites alike.
DIRECTED RACING EDUCATION
Yangkin’s signature problem was unexpected – education. He triumphed on this issue, pledging to increase funding for education and forcing public schools to address pressing social issues such as race and transgender rights.
He said he would ban the teaching of critical race theory in Virginia classrooms, even if it is not part of the high school curriculum.
Critical Race Theory is an academic framework based on the idea that racism is systemic in national institutions and that they act to maintain white dominance. In recent months, it has become the universal political word for any teaching in schools about race and American history.
The focus is on prolonged school closures during a pandemic that has infuriated some traditionally democratic voting groups, and Conservatives have purposefully opposed school board races across the country due to masking rules and teaching about racial justice. In Virginia, 14% of voters cited education as a top issue, and about 7 out of 10 voted for Yangkin.
McAuliffe didn’t help himself when, during a debate, he said, “I don’t believe parents should tell schools what they should teach,” giving Yangkin the decisive opportunity to stab his opponent.
Youngkin also drew attention to the controversial high school bathroom rape case in wealthy Loudon County in Northern Virginia to oppose allowing transgender students in their chosen toilets.
LIBERAL VOTING LAWS ARE NOT BAD FOR GOP
Democrats took control of all parts of the Virginia government in 2019 and has steadily begun to liberalize state voting laws. They made postal voting available to everyone and demanded a 45-day early voting window, one of the longest in the country. This year they passed a voting rights law that made it easier to file a lawsuit for blocking access to ballots.
In 2020, Trump attacked efforts to expand access to ballots during the pandemic by spreading unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.
Republican-controlled states rushed to tighten voting laws by cutting early voting hours, restricting mail-order voting, and arguing that electoral liberalization leads to fraud and helps Democrats. The latter claim contradicts repeated research that has shown that voting by mail does not favor any political party.
The Virginia election is another example of how liberal voting laws don’t harm conservatives.
NEW JERSEY ALSO SCARES DEMOCRATS
The second major gubernatorial race on Tuesday took place in New Jersey. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy took the lead in a race against Republican Jack Chiattarelli, but the race was too early to call Wednesday morning.
Democrats expected encouraging signs from Garden State but were quickly disappointed as what should have been a relatively easy race turned into a nail.
Murphy has succeeded in realizing many liberal priorities, such as expanding government funding for widespread preschools and community colleges, and has the advantage of a position that McAuliffe lacks. So he can offer more of a model for the position that Democrats can take next year if they manage to get past Biden’s agenda. He also avoided McAuliffe’s educational mistakes.
However, the race remained tense even after midnight in the state, which Biden won by 16 percentage points, another sign of a bleak national environment for Democrats.
DO NOT DO
Election day 2022 is still 12 months away. While Tuesday’s results provide some clues as to what might happen, they are just clues.
The two biggest troubles for Democrats right now are the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and supply chain problems that have driven prices up. Both could improve over the next 12 months, potentially supporting the current party, or they could get worse.
There are signs that Democrats may soon pass the Biden Infrastructure and Social Protection Act. Most Wall Street forecasts call for robust growth next year.
Next June, the US Supreme Court will issue an opinion on the abortion case that will determine whether the Conservative majority will support or overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark case that upheld abortion rights.
Because of this, the debate about masks and racial justice lessons in schools may seem like an odd relic of Election Day 2021.
So dig into the results of tonight, but they are by no means final. A lot can and will probably happen next year.