Opinion

Are the Democrats doomed?

Why poor showings in Virginia and New Jersey elections are a bad omen for 2022

Voters went to the polls Tuesday in off-year gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey that have long served as the first reliable preview of the country's political mood after a presidential election. The results send a very strong signal that the political environment has turned sharply against President Biden and the Democrats, and that adjustments will need to be made – and fast – if the party wants to avoid a midterm bloodbath a year from now.

While final margins are still being calculated, Republican Glenn Youngkin posted a stunning victory over former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia (the state prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms) of around 2-3 percent. And in New Jersey, where votes are still being counted, the race between Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli was much closer than polls had suggested. Democrats also appear to have fallen into a 50-50 tie with Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates.

These results could be compared against Biden's in these states last year, or against the results in 2017, and neither comparison is flattering for Democrats. Four years ago, in a sharply anti-Republican environment, Democrat Ralph Northam won the race for Virginia governor by just under 9 percentage points, and Murphy crushed his Republican opponent in New Jersey by over 14. In 2020, a less favorable year for Democrats nationally, Biden won Virginia and New Jersey by 11 and just under 16 points, respectively.

There is no way to sugarcoat it: These are enormous shifts against Democrats. If either McAuliffe's loss or a nail-biting win from Murphy is an accurate gauge of the overall movement away from Democrats, it means that the political climate may have shifted 10 points or more against the party in the past few months, moving from Biden's 4.5 point national popular vote win to a GOP advantage of at least 6 points. 

If the national environment looks like this a year from now, Democrats are headed toward a drubbing that may eclipse even the party's historic wipeout in 2010, when Republicans gained 63 seats in the House and seven in the Senate, as well as flipping 20 state legislatures and six governor's seats. Virginia and New Jersey are Democratic strongholds. One can only imagine the trepidation tonight in the offices of Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who now have to hang onto their swing-state Senate seats in what is shaping up to be an absolute horror show of a 2022 for Democrats.

Even if Democrats regain their footing and recover some lost ground, it is hard to be optimistic. Given the GOP's structural advantage in the U.S. Senate, Democrats would need to win by at least four points nationally just to retain their slim majority next year. And if democracy reforms like national non-partisan redistricting remain stalled in the Senate's legislative mausoleum, Republicans are likely to win the House unless Democrats have the best midterm for either party since George W. Bush's Republicans defied history in 2002. It's hard to see how that happens given what transpired Tuesday.

This is doomsday data for Democrats, and there should be air raid sirens going off in the White House loud enough to wake up the whole city. It's not too late for a 2022 reset, but there is only just barely time to make the necessary adjustments. Doing so requires an understanding of what has gone wrong for the party since midsummer, and making every effort to correct it immediately.

The most important prerequisite to a political recovery big enough to defeat the Republican Party next year is to resolve the differences between the vast majority of congressional Democrats and the handful of would-be mavericks, like Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who are holding up a legislative package full of no-doubt popular policies like paid family and medical leave. The gridlock is exerting a downward pull on Biden's approval rating, which in turn is endangering Democratic candidates up and down the ballot all over the country.

But the Biden administration must also more forcefully address broader discontent with lingering unemployment and sharp increases in the prices of cars, housing, appliances, and construction materials if the economy is to be a winning issue by next November. For all the talk about Manchin and Sinema, the economy was the top issue Tuesday night, and it did not work in the Democrats' favor. Nor did the general COVID malaise and exasperation with masks, particularly in schools.

And as much as it might gall party elites, Democrats do need a better answer to the GOP's critical race theory (CRT) moral panic than dismissing it as the febrile hallucination that it is. Democrats have been on the defensive all year, which is understandable because it is no more possible to predict the latest Fox-driven outrage of the month than it is to know the next Squid Game in advance. This issue was essentially Youngkin's whole campaign, and it worked in what is fast becoming a Democratic landslide state.

The reticence to take this issue head-on is mystifying. Why not call the CRT freakout what it is: an unsubtle effort to muzzle the speech rights of high school administrators, teachers, and students, to ban and burn books, to monopolize the "marketplace of ideas," to terrify decent people and scare them away from ever serving in public office again, and to turn parents against each other for the sake of politics? Instead, Democrats let Republican operatives maraud across Virginia unchallenged, eating into recent Democratic gains in the suburbs that, if reproduced nationally next year, would be apocalyptic.

More to the point, it is long past time for Democrats to go on the attack against what the GOP has become. The word "Republican" should not be spoken by elected Democrats unless it is preceded by "reactionary," "insurrectionist," "theocratic," "objectively pro-COVID," or whatever sobriquet the focus group puppet masters think is most effective. Party elites must synchronize a message about the GOP's authoritarian turn and its descent into madness and convince voters the rot goes well beyond Donald Trump and now represents a party-wide effort to destroy faith in democracy and impose minority rule and gender tyranny in perpetuity.

There are other reasons, of course, to be sobered by Youngkin's win. His victory will raise the possibility of yet another rogue state awarding its electoral votes to the GOP candidate for president in 2024, even if the Democratic candidate appears to have secured the most votes. If Democrats manage to kick away the Virginia state senate in 2023, abortion could soon be as illegal in the Old Dominion state as it is today in Texas.

A Republican takeover of a reliably blue state by a MAGA acolyte like Youngkin will also be a spectacularly ugly and new experiment. New England features Republican governors in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, but they are from the old guard, and have deliberately distanced themselves from Trump and his hateful politics. In Youngkin, Virginia will be the first Democratic fortress to experience governance by the newly radicalized far-right. Virginians are unlikely to enjoy the ride.  

Voters are extremely unhappy with the Biden administration, the performance of Democratic congressional majorities, and the direction of the country overall. That's the same toxic mix that produced stinging defeats for Republicans in 2018 and 2020 and brought these Democrats to power in the first place. If they wish to avoid the same fate, Democrats need to stop squabbling over legislative price tags, return the country promptly to normalcy, get off their heels in the culture war and get to work.

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