There were increasingly obvious warning signs for Democrats in the days leading up to the off-year elections. Polling started to show signs of strong momentum for Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, to the point where in the closing days Youngkin was seen by many as the favorite. The Virginia House of Delegates was also trending away from Democrats — while they held the House prior to the election, House control quickly shifted toward Republicans. A tough result for Democrats now seemed plausible, if not expected. As election night came and went, it became increasingly clear that a tough result for Democrats was not in the cards — rather, they would encounter a political disaster.
In Virginia, a state that President Joe Biden won by 10 points just a year ago, Democrats lost the governorship by 2 points. They also faced a state-wide election sweep, losing control of the lieutenant governorship as well as the attorney general’s office. Republicans also flipped control of the Virginia House of Delegates. Democrats’ problems didn’t stop in Virginia. In New Jersey, the only other state with a major statewide race, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy secured his governorship, yet significantly underperformed Biden’s 2020 result. In a race that was not imagined as anything close to a toss-up, the results ended up being within a typical polling margin of error.
The most concerning sign of all is there isn’t a single issue or aspect Democrats can point to explain away their losses, or the future problems they are facing in 2022 and beyond. It is true that Glenn Youngkin ran a smart campaign, and found a way to straddle the Trump line as best as one could have imagined. The problem with blaming the loss on a strong opponent is that Democrats had even worse results in New Jersey, with a Republican candidate that did not receive anywhere close to the media attention as Youngkin did. The momentum, and accompanying media hype that Youngkin received, Jack Ciattarelli did not.
Democrats also can’t point to one particular demographic that they struggled with. They continued their bleeding in the suburbs, full of swing voters, where Republican support was likely bolstered by culture issues like critical race theory. Republicans often saw an even bigger margin of victory in parts of Trump Country, rural areas that Democrats had hoped had already been maxed out by Republicans in 2020. Women shifted dramatically towards the Republicans, as did Independents, who shifted 28 points towards the GOP from last year’s presidential results.
Former President Donald Trump unsurprisingly is also a factor in the upcoming midterms. Though much is made of the fact that Trump can uniquely turn out Republican voters when he’s on the ballot, he can equally do so (and arguably to a greater extent) for Democrats. In the biggest examples yet that we have to go off of, when Trump was not in office or on the ballot, it was Republicans who had the turnout advantage. Democrats managed to amass roughly 200,000 more votes for their gubernatorial candidate in Virginia than they did in 2017, but Republicans improved their total by roughly 500,000 votes. Democrats felt confident in Virginia if turnout was high. It was, and yet they still struggled mightily. If Democratic-leaning states are seeing high voter turnout, and the Republican candidates are still winning, Democrats have a massive challenge on their hands. Without Trump on the ballot or in office to message on, Democrats will have to avoid the McAuliffe route of simply pointing all grievances to Trump if they want to win.
The other challenge Democrats face is it appears none of the party can coalesce around what went wrong. Some, like Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., argued that Democrats would have seen more success had they been willing to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill before. Others, like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., claimed “There is no way that you can say that a 12-point swing in a state is due to Congress not passing a bill.” Most troubling of all, the party’s leader, President Joe Biden, apparently couldn’t decide if the infrastructure mattered or not. At one point he suggested it wouldn’t have made a difference, then later said the result showed voters wanted them to get things done. Some progressives have also claimed the loss shows why Democrats need to quickly pass — and should have already passed — the massive reconciliation package, while others like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., have said the exact opposite, arguing that voters are sending a message to Democrats to slow things down.
Democrats indeed faced a tough environment. Biden’s approval as president is the lowest its ever been. They are the party in power, and historical trends (especially with the Virginia gubernatorial election) spell trouble for them going forward. The problem is that it is hard to imagine the environment getting much better in 2022, and more challenges will certainly arise. An ABC poll found 51% of registered voters say they will support the GOP candidate in their House district, compared to 41% for Democrats. That is the biggest lead Republicans have ever registered in ABC polling, which dates back 40 years. Republican gerrymandering alone will also be more than enough to negate the minuscule house majority Dems have right now. They will have to go into a midterm, with their party in control of the White House, with no padding whatsoever.
If Democrats are to buck historical trends and pull off a mini-miracle by retaining the House and Senate in 2022, it will take some big changes. First, they have to be willing to fully venture into the culture wars, which Republicans have been dominating for years. Evidence shows voters in large part support Democratic policy, but Republicans on ‘culture war’ issues, and the latter can often take precedent. It worked great against McAuliffe in Virginia, for example. Next, they have to address Democratic voter apathy. Though not well-reasoned, many Democrats feel the administration and Democratic-controlled Congress are getting nothing done. In reality, they have accomplished a lot, including monumental legislation such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and the American Rescue Plan. Messaging will be crucial to address this and ensure voters of the fact that progress, and substantial progress, is indeed being made under Biden.
Lastly, Biden will have to fix his standing among voters. Be it through similar aforementioned changes, more favorable conditions regarding aspects like inflation and the supply chain, or avoiding negative media events such as the Afghanistan withdrawal, current realities simply will not cut it for Democrats and Biden. He is way below water with Independents, the voter block that often determines swing districts and states, and his approval rating is in the low 40s, numbers no president has seen at this point in his presidency except for former President Donald Trump. If the flag-bearer of the party stays well below water, apathy doesn’t subside, and hesitancy to play hardball with Republicans continues, Democrats might as well forget about their chances in the 2022 midterms.
Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.