Five takeaways from a grim night for Democrats

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe prepares to speak at an election night party in McLean, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. Voters are deciding between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(The Hill) – Republican Glenn Youngkin won a stunning victory in Virginia on Tuesday, snatching the governor’s mansion away from Democrats in a state that President Biden won by ten points just a year ago.

Youngkin, a businessman and first-time candidate for office, defeated Terry McAuliffe, a past governor and close ally of the Clinton family who has been a fixture of Democratic politics for decades. It was the first Republican statewide victory in the commonwealth since 2009.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy was locked in an unexpected dogfight with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli that stretched into the early hours.

At 1 a.m. Eastern Time, Murphy and Ciattarelli were close to neck-and-neck with around 80 percent of precincts reporting.

But beyond the results, what are the main takeaways?

A sharp rebuke for Biden

President Biden emphatically predicted a McAuliffe win in a Tuesday news conference from Scotland — before going on to say that a more adverse result should not be read as a rejection of his agenda.

The prediction was wrong and the argument is implausible.

Biden’s easy win over Trump in Virginia 12 months ago is a distant memory now. The president’s poll ratings in the commonwealth are weak — several recent polls have indicated that his approval number among Virginians is somewhere in the low 40s.

Even McAuliffe acknowledged, in a gaffe he later tried to clean up, that Biden was “unpopular” in the state.

The exact causes of that unpopularity are open to debate. But in a political climate where so many state contests are won and lost on national issues, discontent with Biden and his administration was a millstone that McAuliffe did not have the political talents to lift.

The problem for Biden is that Virginia is not so unusual. His national approval ratings have sunk to about the same level.

Biden had already been enduring a tough stretch of his presidency since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and now he’s faced with another bad story — and a new round of Democratic back-biting has already begun.

Democrats have a lot of work to do

Tuesday was a grim day for Democrats, and not only in Virginia.

The closeness of the New Jersey race was a real shock. And in a disappointment for progressives, a ballot measure to replace the Minneapolis police department with a new public safety agency went down to defeat in the city where George Floyd was murdered in May 2020.

There will, at a minimum, be renewed tensions between centrist and progressive Democrats.

Centrists are already arguing that the results demonstrate a need to chart a more cautious course or face electoral disaster.

But the left is in no mood to trim its sails. A collective statement from several progressive groups including Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement released after midnight branded the McAuliffe campaign as one that was “designed to fail” and had “no rebuttal to Republican race-baiting b—shit.”

One thing’s for sure: Republicans are as of today on course to take back control of Congress in next year’s midterms.

A new template for Republican victories

Youngkin handled the huge issue of former President Trump with surprising deftness, particularly for a first-time candidate.

He accepted the endorsement of Trump and was careful not to alienate the former president’s supporters.

But he also kept Trump at arm’s length, especially in the closing stretches of the general election campaign. Trump never campaigned in person with Youngkin, and the Republican gubernatorial candidate also hit out when a rally hosted by Trump allies purportedly used a flag from the rally that immediately preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Youngkin’s campaign commercials portrayed him as an affable family man who was tonally far removed from Trump’s belligerence — even if he did favor some of the same policies.

Youngkin is the first GOP candidate to have real success with what might be termed a post-Trump strategy.

That’s something that will give hope to those members of the party who want to move on from the former president without condemning themselves to the marginalization that Trump’s fiercest internal foes have suffered.

Culture wars keep getting hotter

Education was one of the dominant issues of the Virginia race’s closing stages.

But really that label was a catch-all term for several even more emotive topics that got traction with moderates as well as social conservatives.

Resistance to vaccine mandates in schools, a backlash against progressive demands about how American history is taught and an increasingly politicized atmosphere around school boards all played a part.

Democrats argue some of those attacks were simply unfair — or worse. McAuliffe accused Youngkin of using a “racist dog-whistle” in a controversy over the teaching of the Toni Morrison novel “Beloved.”

The problem for Democrats is that the general electorate may be a good deal less progressive on all these issues than liberal Twitter might like to think.

Former Obama strategist David Axelrod asserted on CNN that Youngkin had been “very good at creating straw men” on issues like critical race theory, which is not officially taught in any Virginia public schools. But Axelrod also noted that the attacks had been effective.

Trump claims credit

The fact that Youngkin kept his distance from Trump did not discourage the former president from issuing two separate statements as the Republican candidate’s lead grew on Tuesday night.

“I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you, he would not have been close to winning,” Trump said in the second statement. “The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before.”

There are real questions as to whether that is true.

Trump’s statements sounded gloating. But they also betrayed a concern that the GOP writ large might have found a way to win without him.

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