NOVEMBER 04, 2021 11:00 PM BY W. JAMES ANTLE III
This article first appeared here in the Washington Examiner.
All eyes are on Virginia, where a sweater vest-clad businessman could mark the beginning of a Republican comeback. Party operatives certainly think so. Two days after Glenn Youngkin was elected governor, the Republican Governors Association sent out an alliterative statement headlined “Victory in Virginia: A Forecast for Flipping in 2022.”
“The red wave is here,” blared a similar statement from the Republican National Committee. “The red wave is everywhere.” The GOP spokesman’s missive concluded by saying this wave “started in Virginia, and things are only going to get worse for Joe Biden and the Democrats.” There was also much Republican merriment over a comment by Vice President Kamala Harris as the White House fought to keep the commonwealth in the Democratic column: “What happens in Virginia will in large part determine what happens in 2022, 2024, and on.”
That could prove true. Historically speaking, midterm elections have gone poorly for the party in power unless there are extraordinary circumstances or the incumbent president is unusually popular. Biden is not popular. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows just 43% approve of his performance in office, while 51% disapprove. All of the last 10 surveys included in this average showed Biden below 50%, with a low of 39%.
After Republican George Allen won the Virginia governorship in 1993, the following year, the GOP gained 52 House seats and its first majority in the federal chamber in 40 years. Republican Bob McDonnell’s 2009 election as governor, the last GOP statewide victory, was followed the next year by the party picking up 63 seats in the House.
Republicans don’t need a “red wave” election like 1994 or 2010 to win back control of Congress. The Senate is split 50-50, with Democrats in charge of the chamber only because of Harris’s tiebreaking vote. Republicans are only six seats away from wresting the speaker’s gavel away from Nancy Pelosi.
But Youngkin is the beginning, not the end. “It’s a wake-up call for both Democrats and Republicans,” GOP strategist John Feehery said of the election results. “Democrats have veered dangerously close to socialism, and the American people are not socialists. But while Republicans made some progress, they shouldn’t get too cocky. They barely won Virginia and should have won New Jersey, because [Gov.] Phil Murphy is just terrible. Yes, the GOP has a great chance to win back the House and the Senate, but they can’t rest on their laurels, and they still have some work to do to convince voters that they can govern.”
A confluence of factors helped Youngkin and Republicans sweep the statewide offices in Virginia and compete in New Jersey, both generally blue states Biden won handily a year ago. Local concerns that Republicans managed better than the Democrats, who remained fixated on former President Donald Trump without effect; a national climate characterized by increasing public skepticism of Biden and Democratic congressional leaders; a GOP base that is highly motivated in the face of unified Democratic control of the federal government’s elected branches; rank-and-file Democrats who found themselves somewhat dispirited by the failure of the White House and these majorities to deliver on many of their campaign promises and no longer moved by the specter of Trump.
The end result was high turnout among angry conservatives, a slight corresponding dip in Democratic turnout, and incremental GOP progress in suburban areas sufficient to leave Democrats without much margin for error. Many of these general conditions will exist in states and congressional districts that will swing the majorities next year.
Youngkin won 76% of white voters without college degrees, a landslide of Trumpian proportions. He received 89% of the vote among those who self-described as evangelicals or born-again Christians. Independents went for Youngkin 54% to 45%. There were no exit polls in New Jersey, though Republicans had a strong showing in South Jersey.
Republicans will face questions about how much of Youngkin’s victory was a perfect storm, in which suburban parents were battling the school boards and up in arms about a Loudoun County restroom sexual assault while McAuliffe ran an overconfident, deeply flawed campaign that even early votes banked before the late GOP surge could not save. But there are also hopes that Youngkin’s playbook is replicable elsewhere and trends in the electorate that suggest some old nuggets of conventional wisdom no longer apply.
Democrats “once dominated constituencies that tend to vote less frequently, including young adults, Black and Hispanic voters, and white voters without a college degree,” Elaine Godfrey observed in the Atlantic. “But the shift of white voters with less education toward Republicans, particularly in rural counties, has upended Democrats’ old assumptions about turnout.”
And to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if you can make it in Virginia, you can make it anywhere. With the exception of McDonnell, Democrats had been gaining in the state ever since 2008, when Barack Obama became the first of his party’s presidential nominees to carry Virginia since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory. Democrats now hold both Senate seats and can win statewide without the feints to the right favored by candidates such as one-term Sen. Jim Webb. Republicans seemingly reversed Biden’s 10-point win in the commonwealth in just one year.
“This was as clear of a mandate as you get in politics,” said Rory Cooper, a political strategist who advised former Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor while he was in Republican leadership. “Parents said our schools are broken and elected the candidate who promised to fix them, period.”
It wasn’t just hot-button cultural issues such as critical race theory and gender identity. “If Virginia schools listened to parents in the fall of 2020 and reopened, rather than listening to a NYC union leader and shutting down for another whole year, Terry McAuliffe skates to Richmond,” he said. “Every education issue emanates from that one catastrophic mistake. If schools are open, parents aren’t at school board meetings, investigating curriculum, shopping for other options, or paying attention to other jurisdictions.”
“Incompetent school boards and union leaders chose every selfish option throughout the process, and Democrats will pay long-term costs, which is fitting because so will the kids they harmed,” Cooper added, noting that the reverberations weren’t over yet. “Also overlooked: We now have a new attorney general who is much more likely to investigate the wrongdoing on school boards, particularly in Fairfax and Loudoun, and to put accountability back into the system.”
Another Republican operative summed it up this way: “It turns out suburban moms love their kids more than they hate Trump.” The exit polls found women with children only went for McAuliffe 53% to 47%, while men with children voted 59% to 41% for Youngkin.
Democrats concluded after the 2020 election — when they lost House seats, needed a pair of runoff elections to control the Senate by the narrowest of margins, and only prevailed in the Electoral College by 43,000 votes in three states — that “wokeness” hurt them even as Biden’s win created the impression the party was ascendant.
Voters rebelled against the idea that law enforcement or even their own small children were inherently racist. This included a nontrivial number of nonwhite voters who hold views on a number of policy questions that are to the right of white liberals’ opinions. “What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives,” Democratic data scientist David Shor told New York magazine. Shor concluded that if Biden’s “approval rating is below 50 by the end of the year, we’re probably f***ed.”
Some Democrats have adjusted to the unpopularity of left-wing movements such as “defund the police.” In New York City, where similar liberal attitudes amid rising crime made it possible for Republicans to control the mayor’s office in the overwhelmingly Democratic city for 14 years, the party nominated a black former police officer. The New York mayoral election was not close, while Virginia and New Jersey saw their red swings.
But many more have not. This includes the White House, despite Biden’s relative aversion to wokeness during last year’s Democratic primaries. “We need to be honest here about what’s going on,” Biden’s deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said of the GOP campaign against critical race theory in Virginia schools. “Republicans are lying. They are not being honest. They are not being truthful about where we stand. And they’re cynically trying to use our kids as a political football.”
“Clearly, the Biden administration hasn’t learned that calling parents liars is not a winning strategy,” Ian Prior, executive director of Fight for Schools, promptly shot back.
The White House has also sided with the most liberal Democrats, who say that the electoral repudiation simply proves that they need to pass their agenda more quickly. “Well, I think we should produce for the American people,” Biden told reporters after the elections, adding, “If they pass my legislation, you’re going to see that nobody — and some of you who have children in daycare or children in childcare, you’re paying up to $14,000 a year if you live here.”
When a cellphone rang after Biden’s pitch for his massive spending bills as the response to Democratic defeats, he quipped, “If that’s Trump, then tell him I’m busy.” Biden mentioned Trump 24 times in his failed campaign swing for McAuliffe. He conceded his phone comment was a “bad joke.”
It’s possible that more liberal legislative action would narrow the enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters, a small but real part of Biden’s problem. Some individual provisions of the Democratic spending measures, such as the child tax credit, poll well. But there are also concerns about whether the spending would feed inflation and damage the economy. Exit polls found a plurality of voters trusted only Youngkin to handle the Virginia economy.
Centrist Democrats who were already nervous about the Biden agenda now have additional data points to back up their reticence to get on board. They are among the lawmakers who are most likely to lose their seats if Biden and the party continue on their current trajectory.
“We can’t go too far left. This is not a center-left or a left country,” Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia told CNN after the electoral setbacks. “We are a center, if anything, a little center-right country; that’s being shown, and we ought to be able to recognize that.” Manchin, who represents a state that Trump twice carried by around 40 points, has been the Biden agenda’s primary holdup. This suggests the centrists, like the Left, may only come away more committed to their preexisting positions.
Democrats have been down this road before, when Biden was vice president. They decided to risk their then much larger majorities to pass Obamacare in the hope that fulfilling a campaign promise would help them avoid the usual midterm election fate. They enacted Obamacare and lost the House, with centrists hardest hit. But they do still have Obamacare.
If Democrats have a problem with a recalcitrant Left, Republicans have a stubborn ex-president who could make it difficult to build on Youngkin’s successes. Youngkin was measured in his expression of controversial opinions and kept Trump at arm’s length. Yet he did enough to maintain Trump’s endorsement and avoid the former president’s wrath.
It’s a delicate balance that not every Republican will be able to strike next year. Judging from the Ohio GOP senatorial primary between Josh Mandel and J.D. Vance, not all of them will be inclined to try. Youngkin’s inroads in purple and even blue areas were not won by trying to out-Trump his rivals, even if McAuliffe ran against him as if that was the case. A year hence, not all Republicans will still want to learn the lessons from Youngkin’s upset.
Youngkin is the latest sign that Republicans have the opportunity to make the Democrats’ razor-thin majorities, and possibly even Biden’s presidency, short-lived. But they aren’t out of the woods quite yet.
W. James Antle III is the Washington Examiner’s politics editor.