This past week marked the first major election since Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020. The results in two states that Biden won easily last year over Donald Trump, Virginia and New Jersey, paint a dire picture for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterms, which will decide control of the U.S. Congress, and with it, the future of Biden’s policy agenda.
The U.S. has been, and continues to be, a sharply polarized nation politically. There are no permanent governing majorities, and fortunes ebb and flow with the nature of the U.S. electorate. The Republican party, stung by defeat in 2016 and displeased with their opponents’ governing actions, is unified in their opposition, while the Democratic party struggles with internal divisions and growing voter frustration over their lack of immediate success.
For the first time in more than a decade, Virginia — a state that was comfortably Democratic in last year’s presidential election — has elected a Republican governor. A Republican political newcomer, Glenn Yongkin, delivered a stunning upset in the Virginia governor’s race over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy narrowly won reelection in his reliably blue state, with both elections sending a warning to Democrats that their grip on power in Washington may be in peril.
In Virginia, Youngkin relied on his background as a typical pro-business Republican to reassure moderates and independents, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia, that he is not an extremist. He also managed to use culture-war issues to keep pro-Trump Republicans in his corner; Youngkin nodded to Trump’s base on race-conscious education at school (Critical Race Theory), mask mandates and election security, while also focusing on larger educational issues and the economy. Within this framework, he still managed to distance himself from the former president, not inviting him to help his campaign and never fully embracing the defining issue of Trumpism: the idea of the “stolen election.”
Youngkin prevailed in a task that has stumped Republicans before him: attracting Trump’s base while also appealing to suburban voters who were repelled by the former president’s divisive behavior. This sidestepping of Trump is a huge factor; in a state like Virginia, you can’t be anti-Trump and win a GOP nomination, and you can’t be too vocally pro-Trump and win a statewide election.
Youngkin’s victory is significant. It points to a viable path ahead for the GOP in swing areas, one that keeps the Trump base on board while regaining lost ground with independents and suburbanites. The national implications of Virginia’s elections are concerning for Democrats hoping to push Biden’s more progressive agenda. According to 13 News Now, Vice President Harris told Democratic voters in Norfolk, Va. prior to the election that Virginia is “…a bellwether for what happens in the rest of the country,” especially in regards to the Biden administration and its floundering Build Back Better Act. Looking at Youngkin’s successful run, Republicans have a powerful template for how to pitch candidates when the former president is not on the ballot.
In New Jersey’s much closer than expected gubernatorial race, Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli and incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy were locked in a virtual draw, even though registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million. Ciattarelli leveraged his position with voters through a surprisingly strong campaign on issues including taxes, as well as opposition to masks and vaccination mandates.
The setbacks for Democrats in heavily suburban Virginia and New Jersey hinted at a conservative-stoked backlash to the discussions around race and identity championed by the party, as Republicans relentlessly sought to turn schools into the next front in the country’s culture wars. If Republican candidates replicate the strategies shown in Virginia and New Jersey in 2022, they will have a good chance of winning enough of Democratic-held suburban congressional seats to gain back control of the House of Representatives. Democrats only have a narrow margin of control in the chamber right now, so it won’t take much of a shift to deliver victory for the Republicans.
This past Tuesday’s results showed the limitations of resistance politics when the object of resistance is out of power. It also shed light on the growing frustrations voters feel toward the Democratic Party failing to fulfill many of their biggest campaign promises, and spoke to the way that a lingering pandemic has transformed schools into some of the country’s most divisive political battlegrounds.
Moderate Democrats argued that the defeat was a sign that Congress must immediately pass the party’s infrastructure bill, regardless of what happens with the shrunken version of Biden’s social package. Progressives on the other hand blamed the failure of the party to push a broader agenda, including overturning the filibuster to pass liberal priorities like protecting the right to vote.
Congressional Democrats seemed to take heed to this warning as they quickly put the infrastructure vote into motion, passing the $1.2 trillion bill in the early hours of Saturday, according to U.S. News. Passage of the Build Back Better Act remains incomplete, but House Democrats managed to pass the rule establishing debate and setting up its final passage.
Progressive Democrats are trusting Biden to deliver on the Build Back Better Act, but this past week’s elections show they are really going to have to push fast and hard to get their priorities addressed in this administration. Republicans seem to have a very viable long-term strategy for keeping their voters engaged, even in off-year elections, with racist/fear-oriented cultural issues. The Democratic Party must figure out how to unify before the Republican party adopts similar, effective campaign strategies to those seen in Virginia and New Jersey, which would ultimately steer Biden’s policy agenda away from much-needed progressive change.