Another Election Hot Take
The running joke about the analysis of last week’s elections is that, whatever the result, it definitely proved that the writer’s prior prescriptions for victory, whether followed or not, were definitively correct. This piece will be no different, just offered with a few more days of hindsight. The Democratic losses in Virginia are no reason to panic, just a reversion to the mean of the past forty years. Democratic erosion in the Virginia suburbs is not catastrophic and is actually more indicative of the depth of the inroads the party has made there. The real bellwether result was in New Jersey where Phil Murphy bucked nearly a half century of history. Finally, the splintering of the country continues apace, with the core of the Democratic party becoming more diverse and progressive, and Republicans abandoning policy entirely to focus on culture wars.
Since 1982, the party that controlled the White House has lost the Virginia gubernatorial election with just one exception, that being Terry McAuliffe in 2013. In that race, McAuliffe somewhat successfully branded the Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, as a conservative extremist while also considerably outspending the GOP candidate. Even so, McAuliffe just squeaked out a 2.5 point victory. McAuliffe appears to have tried to run a similar campaign against Youngkin, but his attempts to tie the moderate-sounding and looking Republican to Trump largely failed and Youngkin’s deep pockets and financial connections offset McAuliffe’s formidable fundraising. From the very beginning, McAuliffe alienated Black women when his fundraising muscle basically squeezed out two very capable Black female candidates in the Democratic primary. In the end, he and his desultory campaign were a worn-out retread, resulting in a tight 2.0 point loss and a reversion to Virginia’s recent historical norm.
Of course, the Democratic panic caucus, consisting of what Greg Sargent calls “arbitrary centrists”, will point to the fact that Democrats also lost control of the Virginia House of Delegates as an indication that the party is losing the ground they recently gained in the suburbs. This, again, ignores history. Democrats only won control of the Virginia House in 2019 for the first time in over 20 years and that required two blue wave elections in 2017 and 2019. Some kind of retrenchment was bound to happen. As Sean Trende points out, the 2011 Republican gerrymander in Virginia was designed to reliably give the GOP around 70 seats. Yes, there have been demographic shifts in the intervening years, but the fact that Democrats held the GOP to just a little over 50 seats indicates just how much the Democrats have consolidated their gains in the suburbs.
In contrast to the Democratic losses in Virginia, the truly historic result last week was Phil Murphy’s re-election in New Jersey. Murphy’s win represents the first time a Democratic governor has won re-election in that state since 1977. Despite the early reports of a razor-thin margin that further excited the Democratic panic caucus, Murphy looks to have secured a 3.0 point victory or larger, which compares favorably the supposedly devastating 2.2 point Youngkin win. As opposed to McAuliffe, Murphy was an incumbent with a record to run on, and run on it he did. As Murphy himself noted, “Thank God we put the programs in place we put in place… – expanding pre-K, raising the minimum wage, investing in all-time levels in infrastructure – because, had we not, we might have been swept away”. Ironically, even with some down-ballot Democratic losses and a margin of victory that did not nearly match the now totally unreliable polls, the win leaves Murphy in a more powerful position than he was before the election. Democrats still control the state legislature and his biggest nemesis, State Senate President Steve Sweeney, was defeated in a stunning upset by an open racist who only spent a couple of thousand dollars on the race. Sweeney was the most powerful representative of the corrupt southern New Jersey Democratic machine who blocked some of Murphy’s other progressive policies like legalizing marijuana and even codifying abortion rights before the Supreme Court guts those rights early next year.
As always, the arbitrary centrists argue that the Virginia loss and Murphy’s closer-than-expected victory mean that Democrats must move to the always unreachable “center”. Abigail Spanberger, a House Democrat in a swingy Virginia district, declared, “Nobody elected him [Biden] to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos”. Of course, there is a particular absurdity that only these centrists could promulgate that bills they themselves have constantly whittled down and hadn’t even been passed at the time of the election were the prime driver of voting behavior. At the same time, the same people were also making the argument that the months of internal Democratic bickering and failure to pass bipartisan legislation, which they largely blame on the supposed intransigence of progressives, dragged the party down. As Greg Sargent notes, “The critics are incoherent on this point: The ideological scope of the package alienated moderate voters, and so did the failure to pass it”.
In fact, the more plausible reality is that the bickering and failure to pass the infrastructure legislation hurt the Democrats and that failure was the result of centrists being unwilling to agree to the agenda Biden ran on, which was constantly kept alive by progressive compromise. Sargent again expands, “The failure to deliver was probably a much bigger problem…The battling probably did fuel impressions of incompetence and detachment from voter concerns, alienating independents and moderates…Which leads to another fallacy in the criticism: It’s empirically the case that Biden did run on the agenda on its way to passage…There’s just no denying that the campaign conveyed an agenda of great ambition, one that would rise to generationally defining national crises and foundationally transform our political economy”.
Meanwhile, in their core constituencies, which is primarily the urban areas that provide the majority of economic output in this country, Democrats continues to elect a more diverse and progressive candidates. Boston elected its first female and woman of color, as did Durham, North Carolina. Both consider themselves progressive. Dearborn, Michigan elected its first Muslim and Arab-American mayor. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Kansas City, Kansas chose their first Black mayors. Cincinatti saw its first Asian-American mayor. Minneapolis rejected an attempt to totally reimagine how public safety would work in that city, but at the same time elected three Democratic Socialists to the city council.
In the final analysis, there are only two important political lesson from last week’s election. The first is the same one Democrats have been dealing with since Richard Nixon adopted the Southern Strategy. A moderate-sounding Republican who can make the appropriate racial dog whistles and, these days, dog barks, combined with the powerful conservative propaganda machine that can gin up the outrage of the base on some fictional issue or other, will always be a formidable candidate in many of the swing states and on the national stage. There is no Democratic strategy that is going to convince someone who has been convinced that Critical Race Theory is being taught to their second grader to vote Democratic and chasing that voter will depress the Democratic base and muddle the Democratic message. The second is that, to the extent policies matter at all when it comes to voter preferences other than partisan signifiers, everyone in the party, from the most conservative to the most progressive, will be far better off actually delivering something relatively quickly that looks remotely like what the party ran on rather than spending months bickering and fine-tuning legislation to satisfy every member and allowing the corporate and status-quo defenders to marshal their opposition. Sadly, these are lessons Democrats seem to always have to re-learn.
But even those simple lessons are almost meaningless these days. Every day that goes by without Democrats taking action to protect our democracy from Republican authoritarianism makes discussions about the party’s policies and messaging increasingly irrelevant. The Electoral College means that Republicans can lose the popular vote but still win the White House, as they have done twice in the last six elections and came within a whisker of doing again in 2020. Democrats represent 40 million more Americans than Republicans in the US Senate, but can’t even get a majority of seats. That undemocratic structure of the Senate combined with the filibuster means that, even when Democrats do have a majority, Republicans have veto power over almost all legislation that can’t be somehow stuffed into reconciliation. Gerrymandering currently gives Republicans about a 20 seat advantage in the House and that number is likely to get worse after the latest round of reapportionment ends before the 2022 election, probably handing control of that body to the GOP. Gerrymandering also allows Republicans to build an almost permanent majority in state legislatures even when they don’t win the majority of votes, as happened in Wisconsin in 2018. Now Republicans are planning to take partisan control of elections and allow state legislatures to override the will of the voters and determine who won an election on their own. As a last resort, as we saw with the 1/6 coup and now with their increasingly violent rhetoric, Republicans are willing to resort to political violence to obtain power. So the real lesson for Democrats is that time is quickly running out for American democracy and for Democrats to save it.