Then there’s New Jersey, where Republican Jack Ciattarelli led Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy for most of Tuesday night, though Murphy hopes to salvage a narrow victory – a year after seeing Biden carry his state by 16 points – with votes from late -reporting blue counties.
Here’s what we learned from Tuesday’s election outside of the year:
The suburbs swing back
Youngkin’s campaign made no secret of its plans to target Virginia’s vocal suburbs, convinced he was a Republican who could withhold some of the support the GOP had lost under Trump.
It worked even though the counties around Washington and Richmond are still painted blue on the map. Youngkin cut into McAulife’s margins in places like Loudoun County and lost by 10 points in the same spot that then-President Donald Trump lost by 25 last year. Youngkin won 35 percent of the vote in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous municipality – easily a McAuliffe team, but a major GOP improvement from Trump’s 28 percent and 2017 gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespies’ 31 percent.
Youngkin won not only in Northern Virginia. He turned Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, a longtime Republican bastion that had recently moved into the Democrats’ column. The same with the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake in the southeast corner of the state.
The results caused Democrats to shake, and some agents warned that efforts to treat suburban voters as part of the party’s base would judge their candidates.
“To all those who have written off persuasion and swing voters as a saga simply: Hate to tell them that, but they are very real,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist and native of Virginia.
The driving force behind these results: The Republican Party, after softening women and independent voters during the Trump era, saw Youngkin outperform with independent and dramatically improve the party’s position among women. Far from merely leveling the GOP’s pro-Trump base, he proved that a Republican could rally a broader coalition of right-wing voters who may have despised the former president – but who are willing to forget him.
Like Virginia, New Jersey, the country’s most densely populated state, is home to suburbs of cities in other states – and the same phenomenon was evident there. While not all votes are counted early Wednesday morning, Ciattarelli had a narrow lead in Bergen County, over the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, which Biden won by about 16 points.
Rural America is roaring again
Youngkin’s suburban gains were necessary – but not sufficient – to overtake McAuliffe. He also needed Trump Country to show up in full force, and it did.
Trump predictably issued a statement crediting “my BASE” for Youngkin’s victory. But in counties throughout rural Virginia, Youngkin even ran with or often ahead of Trump. He won 66 percent of the vote in Roanoke County in southwest Virginia, up from Trump’s 60 percent. In Bedford County, where Trump received 73 percent of the vote, Youngkin won 79 percent.
Moreover, turnout in many of these counties easily surpassed the last gubernatorial race four years ago, a sign that Trump’s base was motivated to show up without Trump himself on the ticket, or even a personal Trump meeting.
The other side of the coin: Democratic candidates continue to sink to new lows in rural areas, especially among white voters. According to exit polls, Youngkin won white voters without a college degree – which is overrepresented in rural areas – by a 3-to-1 margin, 76 percent to 24 percent. Trump won those voters by a smaller margin of 62 to 38 percent against Biden in 2020.
Democrats’ lack of message
McAuliffe spent his entire campaign tying Youngkin to Trump. He hit hard on the pandemic, and like many Democrats, he believed Texas’ abortion ban would knock out Democratic voters.
Abortion, McAuliffe said this summer, “will be a huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote.”
It was not. Fewer than one in 10 voters said abortion was the most important issue for them, according to exit polls. Only 14 percent said the same about coronavirus.
What mattered was education and economics – both issues where Youngkin had the advantage. The Republican raised fears of so-called “critical race theory” and beat McAuliffe for saying during a debate: “I do not think parents should tell schools what to teach.”
What did the Democrats have to offer? Little.
The party’s infrastructure and social spending plans are still locked inside Congress, and the Democratic president’s public approval is in the tank.
Doug Herman, a lead mail strategist for Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, said McAulife’s campaign mismanaged the debate over education and critical race theory.
“I don’t think they got on top of it and turned it around the way they should have done,” he said.
But Tuesday’s election also exposed broader message problems for the party.
“The Democratic Party and Joe Biden were elected to solve problems, and all they do is fight over price tags,” Herman said. “If Congress does not pass a bill soon so we can get out there and start campaigning on it, we have nothing to run for.”
High turnout will not save Democrats
Seven years ago, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) Was nearly torn from office by the Republican midterm wave in 2014, and he barely joined a race that was far more competitive than anyone had expected.
That year, fewer than 2.2 million Virginia people turned out to vote in what was, at national level, the lowest turnout in a century. The result: the closest GOP had come on a Virginia victory since 2009.
In this election, at least 3.3 million votes have already been counted, with more left to count. It broke records for off-year elections – and Democrats claim that high turnout always helps their candidates.
Progressive has a problem
While Democrats were on the move across the country on Tuesday, voters’ shift to the right robbed some remarkable opportunities to create victories at night.
Yes, Michelle Wu won Boston’s mayoral election. And in Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, a progressive prosecutor, won another term.
But even in the democratically-rich parts of the country, voters slashed closer to the center than the left. In Buffalo, NY, India, Walton, a Democratic socialist who had defeated the city’s Democratic mayor, Byron Brown, in the primary election, seemed to lose to Brown’s writing campaign. In Seattle, moderate Bruce Harrell ran ahead of progressive Lorena González in the city’s mayoral race.
Perhaps most significantly, in Minneapolis, voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure to overhaul the city’s police department. The measure, which had exposed Democrats to criticism that it was intended to “defuse the police” at a time when the city was experiencing an increase in violence, would have replaced the department with a “Department of Public Safety” and eliminated minimum staffing requirements.
And it was on top of the victories for moderates that had already baked in – but ended on Tuesday. Eric Adams, a moderate Democrat, won the New York City mayoral race. And in Ohio, Shontel Brown won the special election to fill the vacancy left by former Representative Marcia Fudge, after defeating Nina Turner, a prominent progressive Democrat, in the primary election earlier this year.
Progressive Democrats can make a credible case that they are not the problem. Bernie Sanders is not president. Joe Biden is.
But in the wake of Tuesday’s results, pressure to adopt any kind of infrastructure and social spending plans will intensify as Democrats fear a repeat of the blowout in the midterm period next year. The resulting drift of the party is unlikely to go to the left, but to the two centrist senators in the midst of these negotiations.
As one strategist put it in a text message late Tuesday, “Tonight really gives power [Joe] Manchin and [Kyrsten] Movie theater.”