Assessing the election results: Joy and alarm
By Shane Goldmacher
Glenn Youngkin, a Republican business executive, marched to victory in Tuesday’s election, delivering his party the governorship of Virginia and highlighting a strong night for Republicans less than a year after voters pushed them fully out of power in the nation’s capital.
The outcome in Virginia, combined with an unexpectedly close contest in New Jersey, where the Democratic governor barely won reelection, delivered a jolt of encouragement for Republicans and a stark warning sign for the Democrats less than 10 months into President Joe Biden’s term.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s contests and what the results could mean for 2022, when control of the House, Senate and 36 governorships will be on the ballot:
A GOP pathway
Republicans suffered repeated down-ballot losses in the past four years, as the party grappled with how to motivate a base deeply yoked to Donald Trump without alienating the suburban voters who came to reject the former president’s divisive style of politics.
Enter Glenn Youngkin and his fleece vest.
Youngkin pulled off something of a surprise and rare feat: He drove up the Republican margins in white and rural parts of the state further than Trump had, cutting into the edge of the Democratic nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in suburban areas. He even flipped some key counties entirely.
Youngkin had campaigned heavily on education and seized on McAuliffe’s remark that he didn’t “believe parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin used the comment, made during a debate, as an entryway to hammer his rival on issues like race and transgender rights in schools. The issues simultaneously motivated the Republican base while casting the matter to moderates as an issue of parental rights.
Biden loomed larger than Trump
To the extent that the Youngkin victory provided a fresh GOP blueprint, the surprisingly strong showing in New Jersey by the Republican candidate, Jack Ciattarelli, who was only narrowly defeated by Gov. Philip Murphy, a Democrat, made plain that the political environment had seriously degraded for Democrats nationally.
A national NBC News poll in late October showed that 45% of registered voters approved of the job Biden was doing, compared with 52% who disapproved.
Such diminished standing offered Republicans an opportunity even in blue territory.
Strategists in both parties said that the Virginia race was heavily shaped by Biden’s falling approval rating, and that the downward Democratic trajectory had begun when the president stumbled through the troubled pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
McAuliffe and the Democrats never recovered.
Gop margins show a 2022 rise
The headline, of course, is that Youngkin won. But for political strategists focused on the midterms in 2022, his final margin is every bit as revealing about the trajectory of the two parties.
Because Biden carried Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020, a Youngkin victory represents a Republican improvement of more than 10 percentage points in exactly one year.
Just as worrisome for the Democrats is that of the 36 governorships up for grabs in 2022, eight are now held by Democrats in states that had a smaller Democratic margin of victory in 2020 than Virginia, according to an election memo for donors from the Republican Governors Association. That list includes three of the most crucial presidential battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The political middle still matters
The American electorate is increasingly polarized, and a shrinking sliver of voters oscillates between the two major parties. But those voters still matter. For every vote that flips to the other side, a campaign must find two new voters to make up for the lost ground.
For years, it was the Democrats in Virginia who were obsessed with cutting into the margins in Republican strongholds and the suburbs.
Yet in 2021, McAuliffe ran as a mainline Democrat. He deployed Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams in a bid to rally his party’s partisan faithful.
If McAuliffe was seemingly singularly obsessed with his base, the Youngkin campaign homed in on an issue that Democrats typically dominate: education. That focus helped him make incursions into Democratic territory.
Democratic factions face off
Several municipal races pitted the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. The contests offered mixed results.
In Buffalo, New York, India Walton, who was seeking to become a rare democratic socialist elected to a mayoralty, conceded to Mayor Byron W. Brown, who waged a write-in campaign to keep his job after losing to Walton in the Democratic primary.
In Minneapolis, voters rejected an amendment to transform the city’s Police Department into a new Department of Public Safety. At the same time, the city’s moderate Democratic mayor, Jacob Frey, won a second term.
In the Seattle mayor’s race, Bruce Harrell, a former City Council president, was leading his more progressive rival, Lorena González.
The left did score some wins. In Boston, Michelle Wu, who was running with the backing of progressives, won the mayor’s race. And in Cleveland, Justin Bibb, a 34-year-old with progressive backing, is set to become mayor as well.