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Boston Political Review

Republicans sweep Virginia off-year election in rebuke to President Biden

Features Editor Ishaan Rahman on Republicans’ stunning victories in the off-year elections that took place across the United States on Tuesday

President Joe Biden’s fall slump just got worse. Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, has stormed to victory in the state of Virginia along with several other high-profile GOP wins. There were also mayoral offices, including in New York City, two House of Representatives seats and another Governor’s race in New Jersey up for grabs. These are the first major elections to take place since President Biden’s election victory last year.

Republicans made gains by reversing the progress Biden and Democrats had made with moderate, suburban voters during Donald Trump’s deeply unpopular presidency. Without Trump in the White House causing his usual mayhem, those voters were more inclined to give mild-mannered, supposedly “moderate” Republican candidates like Youngkin a shot. This, combined with a more apathetic Democratic base and discontent with the Biden administration, led to a Republican wave.

These races have major implications for the remainder of Biden’s presidency and how Democrats will fare in upcoming elections.

Glenn Youngkin wins on Biden’s home turf

Youngkin narrowly won the race to become the state of Virginia’s next governor. Virginia has long been a battleground state. However, since Barack Obama’s election as President in 2008, the state has swung sharply towards Democrats due to an influx of moderate, educated voters who were put off by an increasingly right-wing GOP and Trump’s populism. As a result, Biden trounced Trump by 10 points in Virginia just a year ago. In fact, going into this election cycle, Republicans had not won a single statewide race in Virginia since 2009.

That makes Youngkin’s victory all the more distressing for Democrats. The Republican had to perform a seemingly impossible balancing act: maintaining support from Trump diehard voters while also winning over suburban moderates who may have voted for Biden just last year. To accomplish this, he campaigned on mainstream issues, such as tax cuts, in more liberal Northern Virginia while firing up the Trump base by vowing to ban so-called “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) from classrooms conservative, rural areas. For the record, Virginia public schools deny teaching CRT.

This tactic proved challenging as Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, a former governor who was running to get his old jab back, ruthlessly attempted to tie Youngkin to Trump. McAuliffe also seized on a number of gaffes on abortion and election “integrity” that suggested Youngkin was not as moderate as he claimed. But those attacks are less potent when Trump is no longer occupying the White House; Democrats simply aren’t energised when they don’t perceive a threat. As a result, Youngkin did surprisingly well in affluent Loudoun, Fairfax and Virginia Beach counties that doomed Trump’s re-election bid just a year ago and maintained support from loyal Republican voters elsewhere. Trump quickly tried to take credit for the victory but the reality is that Youngkin ran a campaign with greater skill, a sharper focus and a broader appeal than the former President ever could.

Youngkin’s victory had coattails too: Republicans won the race for Lieutenant Governor and are leading in the race for Attorney General. The GOP also gained a razor-thin majority in the Virginia legislature’s lower chamber. That said, the new administration will have to work with Democrats to get any legislation passed as they still control the legislature’s upper chamber which was not up for election this year.

Other, low-profile races offer little comfort for Democrats

New Jersey also voted for its next Governor on Tuesday with relatively popular incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy fighting for re-election against Republican Jack Ciattarelli. As a safe Democratic state that Biden won by over 16 points, the race was not expected to be competitive but, at the time of writing, it is too close to call. While it looks likely that Murphy will be re-elected (the remaining ballots are in liberal cities), a close result in such a liberal state is not a good sign for Democrats.

Like Youngkin, Ciattarelli focused on tax cuts while avoiding controversial cultural issues. Murphy attacked Ciattarelli for attending a “Stop the Steal” rally with Donald Trump but has since said that elections are not rigged. Again, without Trump in the White House, Democratic supporters are harder to motivate to vote.

Two House of Representatives seats were also up for election in Ohio. Unsurprisingly, Ohio’s 11th district, an urban, Democratic-heartland, elected Democrat Shontel Brown with almost 80% of the vote. The 15th District has a sizeable Republican lean but was relatively competitive. The Democratic candidate lost that race by about 16 points though that was a noticeable improvement on the almost 27 point loss last year.

Republicans find a path out of the wilderness

Republicans have been in search of a big win for several years now. The unpopular Trump presidency saw them lose control of the House of Representatives, Senate and Presidency within a mere four years. Tump’s conduct after the 2020 Election, including claiming there was “fraud” without evidence and inciting his supporters to violently attack the US Capitol building, tore Republicans apart and made them unpalatable to the majority of American voters.

Democrats watched this with glee. Even as Biden’s approval ratings declined in the summer, it did not seem to affect them electorally. In mid-September, California Governor Gavin Newsom defeated a Republican-led effort to recall him in a landslide. He maintained much of the suburban support that had powered Democratic wins in previous years. Local races also showed no signs of growing, right-wing momentum. The GOP’s image had simply become too toxic even as Democrats faced hurdles in Washington.

However, the races in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere provide a blueprint for how the GOP can win in future elections. If Youngkin and Ciattarelli’s strategies worked in these blue states, they will surely do the trick in 2022 when Democrats will have to fight Senate and Governor races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin which only marginally backed Biden.

To be clear, major challenges are still ahead for the GOP. Firstly, candidates like Youngkin are few and far between; across the country, Trump-backed ideologues are beating more moderate conservatives to compete in general elections next year. These candidates may be unappealing to moderates. In fact, Youngkin himself only won the Republican nomination in Virginia because the party changed their selection process to give establishment figures an advantage (much to the ire of Trump-aligned candidates). Moreover, Republicans candidates are struggling to fundraise as countless donors abandoned them after Trump’s January 6th insurrection. Youngkin had the benefit of using his substantial personal wealth to keep up with McAuliffe in fundraising.

Back to the drawing board for Democrats

After their success in the aforementioned California Recall election, Democrats thought that they had found a recipe for victory in the post-Trump political world. Governor Newsom had touted his success handling the pandemic and support for vaccine mandates. He also painted his opponents as Trump-like extremists who would roll back abortion and voting rights and take the state down the same path as Florida and Texas, which have seen sickeningly high Coronavirus deaths.

However, Newsom’s opponent, Larry Elder, was easy to portray a right-wing zealot due to his controversial past comments. On the other hand, Youngkin worked tirelessly to craft an image as a moderate, pragmatist who acknowledged that Biden fairly won the 2020 Election (something many Republicans still have not done). Moreover, Youngkin’s opposition to Biden’s popular vaccine mandates proved to have little effect on his prospects as the pandemic becomes a lower priority issue for American voters.

The question for Democrats is how they can improve their standing before the Midterm Elections next year. Passing their popular infrastructure and social spending bills will go a long way to showing that they are delivering on their promises. In addition, the economy is continuing to recover after the pandemic and cases and deaths are subsiding. A more stable social situation next year may put to rest current concerns about inflation. If these factors work in Democrats favour, they would have a good shot at keeping control, or maybe even gaining ground, in the Senate next year. However, maintaining their narrow majority in the House of Representatives is a tall order.

The simple fact is that the party occupying the White House often lose ground at the state level and in Midterm Elections even if people are economically well-off. In 2018, halfway through the Trump presidency, the economy was booming but Republicans were torn apart in the House of Representatives and Governor races. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also saw their parties take a beating in Congressional and statewide races. The silver lining for Biden himself is that each one of those Presidents (aside from Trump) were still re-elected. This election may not have implications for Biden or the Presidency, but it is a warning message to Democrats struggling to pass their agenda in Congress: get back to work.

Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.




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