Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe had hoped former President Donald Trump’s continuing unpopularity would halt the pendulum swing against a new president and his party that nearly always takes place in Virginia and often continues in the following year’s midterms.
Instead, Youngkin drafted a playbook for Republicans to navigate around Trump — keeping the former President’s base energized while also winning back a share of suburbanites who had fled the party during Trump’s tenure.
While the New Jersey governor’s race remains unsettled, with ballots left to count, its neck-and-neck status through the night Tuesday was another shocker for Democrats who expected Gov. Phil Murphy to coast to reelection. The close New Jersey race, which received much less national attention than the Virginia contest, might be an even more ominous indicator for Democrats that the political environment, at least for the moment, has shifted hard in Republicans’ favor.
And in cities across the country, Democrats dominated mayoral races, according to CNN projections — but offered mixed messages on the direction of the party, with progressives securing historic wins in Boston and Pittsburgh, while a moderate champion was crowned in New York City.
Minneapolis rejected a measure to overhaul its police department in a closely watched vote that showed the backlash against a protest movement that followed the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020.
Here are eight takeaways from the 2021 elections:
Virginia had trended blue — and then Tuesday happened
Until Tuesday, Democrats dominated in Virginia. The party had full control of the statehouse, and President Joe Biden had won there by 10 percentage points only a year ago.
McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014 to 2018, tried to win his old job back by casting Youngkin, a milder-mannered former business executive, as Trump in a sweater vest. Instead, Youngkin pulled off a remarkable feat: He kept Trump’s base, while also cutting deeply into Democrats’ advantage with suburban voters who still dislike Trump.
Youngkin won 17% of the voters who said they disapprove of Trump, exit polls showed, compared to McAuliffe winning just 5% of those who approve of the former President. Youngkin also proved more likable than Trump: 52% said they viewed him favorably, compared to Trump’s 42% and McAuliffe’s 45%.
While McAuliffe tried to turn the race into a national referendum, Youngkin focused much more narrowly on local issues — pledging to repeal the grocery tax, suspend the gas tax and jump-start the state’s economy.
Perhaps most importantly, he tapped into the brewing culture war over education. He appealed to conservatives steeped in the right-wing media ecosystem by promising to ban critical race theory, which isn’t taught in Virginia schools; to end coronavirus-related school shutdowns and mask mandates; and to launch an expansive charter school program. He also won over moderates by pledging an education budget with money for teacher raises — a core theme in his television ads — and special education.
It turned into a coalition that could carry Youngkin to victory.
Republicans can focus on economy and education
Republicans across the country were watching Virginia for lessons that could apply to races for governor, the House and the Senate in next year’s midterm elections — and some party operatives credited Youngkin with showing what could work.
Youngkin’s personal wealth, which can’t be easily replicated, helped. He was able to define himself in television advertisements before McAuliffe could morph him into “Trumpkin.”
But his message — focused on state-level steps he would take on crime, the economy and education — could work across the map, one GOP strategist said, particularly if Biden continues to face a weak economy and a stagnant Capitol Hill.
In addition to defining himself early, Youngkin tapped into economic issues that have emerged during Biden’s presidency, and did so without reminding voters of Trump. Education was a particularly salient issue in Virginia for Youngkin, the strategist said; other issues, such as immigration, might play that role in other states.
Of course, the most important question for Republicans in 2022 may be whether candidates in Youngkin’s mold, with the ability to build their own brands separate from Trump, can survive primary contests against fierce Trump allies who might be dragged down by their allegiance to the former president in general elections.
Voters may have moved on from Covid-19
A year after Trump’s denial and mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic was the dominant story in American politics, the pandemic appears to be fading as a driving factor at the ballot box.
In Virginia, just 14% of voters said the coronavirus pandemic was the most important issue facing the commonwealth, exit polls showed. That trailed the economy (33%), education (24%) and taxes (15%).
And while McAuliffe won 83% of the votes of those who said coronavirus is the most important issue facing Virginia, he lost to Youngkin by double digits among those who identified every other issue as paramount.
Making it all about Trump didn’t work
McAuliffe went all-in on linking Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump and it failed.
McAuliffe’s central message throughout the close of the campaign was that the same voters who rejected Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020 should do the same to Youngkin. The effort was squarely aimed at boosting Democratic turnout and, while turnout on the left appears to have been significant, the results of the Virginia election have made clear to Democrats across the country that the Republican president — now that he is out-of-office — is not the bogeyman he once was.
“There is no question that McAuliffe relied too much on Trump in absence of anything else. That was a mistake,” a senior Democratic operative told CNN. “Using Trump is OK. Only using Trump in absence of anything else is not a good strategy.”
This failure has implications for Democrats going forward. Although Trump tried to inject himself into this race, the focus on negative messaging gave McAuliffe little space to push an affirmative message for why voters should back him. The loss now forces Democrats, ahead of 2022, to determine how to both rally their base and grow it in coming elections.
The irony is that McAuliffe himself may have been second guessing his absolute focus on Trump.
“I’d love to have him come in. But you know … this is not about Trump,” McAuliffe told CNN before spending the final days making it all about the former President.
New Jersey’s tight race is a bad omen for Democrats
This was the year New Jersey Democrats were going to break their remarkable, 44-year streak of failing to reelect a Democratic governor.
And it still might happen — there are lots of uncounted votes and incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy could very well win a second term.
But the votes counted showed a tight race, which remained uncalled early Wednesday. This is not how Murphy or Garden State Democrats envisioned it going down. And win or lose, the narrow margin suggests Democrats face daunting odds in the 2022 midterm elections.
In this race, Murphy led Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli, a businessman and former state lawmaker, by double digits (or close to it) in most of the late polling. Yes, while Biden’s approval rating in the state is underwater, Murphy’s is not. His pandemic response, including mask and vaccine mandates, has been a political winner.
But Ciattarelli led the incumbent on one crucial issue — the most crucial, according to a recent Monmouth poll that asked voters to rank their concerns: Taxes. And he hammered Murphy over a comment in which the governor downplayed the issue, saying, “If taxes are your issue, we’re probably not your state.”
Ciattarelli tried to keep his distance from Trump, an unpopular figure in the state (where he has a home), a mostly successful strategy undermined by the fact he appeared at a “Stop the Steal” rally last year.
Elections still work
With so much baseless questioning of elections after Trump’s loss in 2020, there were fears that skepticism and fear would lead to low turnout elections.
That didn’t happen. And Tuesday night’s races proved that elections work and can run smoothly. There were very few issues reported and, when there were blips, they were corrected and addressed.
This was particularly clear in Virginia, where the state expended the use of early and mail in voting in respond to the coronavirus pandemic and continued the practice for the 2020 races. And, in response, both candidates took advantage, including Youngkin, who bucked Republican skepticism of non-election day voting and urged his supporters to vote early.
“We were really excited to get a chance to come vote early. We’ve been encouraging all Virginians to come vote, vote early,” Youngkin said when he cast his ballot early.
The strategy worked and Youngkin did what past Republicans had failed to do: Withstood the Democratic early voting surge with significant turnout of his own.
Voters rejected ambitious police reform in Minneapolis
With rising concerns over gun violence, the most aggressive bid to overhaul policing in America failed a big test Tuesday in Minneapolis.
Voters in the city where George Floyd was murdered by a White police officer last year, setting off a worldwide protest movement against police and racist violence, rejected a ballot measure that would have eventually replaced the Minneapolis Police Department with a city council-run Department of Public Safety.
The measure would have removed a requirement to employ a minimum number of police officers in proportion to the city’s population.
Minneapolis City Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham, who spearheaded a similar ballot initiative over the past year, told CNN late Tuesday night that the result was “really unfortunate.”
“We have just seen a clear backlash to progress in our city,” he said.
The success of the status quo is a setback for the activist wing of the Democratic Party, which has seen gains in its efforts to reform police departments, but failed now in its most ambitious effort to fundamentally reduce or eliminate the traditions role of police in America.
Still, there were silver linings for advocates against the expansion of police departments. Voters in Austin, Texas, overwhelmingly voted down a measure that would have grown its police force.
There are mixed messages for Democrats in mayoral races as moderates triumph in NY but progressives notch historic wins
On a night to forget for many progressives, mayoral races projected by CNN painted a complex picture of what voters — Democrats, especially — want from their leaders.
New York’s Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president a retired former police captain who ran on a promise to crackdown on crime and police abuse, handily won election.
Meanwhile, in Boston, Michelle Wu, a progressive protégé of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is on pace to win a historic victory over her moderate rival and fell city councilor, Annissa Essaibi George, who has conceded the race.
Pittsburgh has also elected Pennsylvania State Rep. Ed Gainey as its new mayor. Gainey, a progressive, defeated incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto in the Democratic primary and now will be the first Black mayor there. And a few hours west, Justin Bibb, another candidate with progressive support, will be the next leader in Cleveland.
But as the west coast results rolled in, one more setback for progressives: City Council President Lorena González lost her race against former Council President Bruce Harrell.