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Analysis: Why Democrats should start panicking about 2022

Losing the Virginia governor’s race in a state that President Joe Biden had won by 10 percentage points just a year earlier was bad enough. But the surprising closeness of the New Jersey governor’s race — coupled with the rejection of a ballot measure to replace the police department in Minneapolis — suggests that there is broad dissatisfaction in the country for how Democrats have handled the power given to them in 2020.
Below are five reasons why now is the time that Democrats need to start panicking about the coming 2022 midterms.
1. Donald Trump isn’t the bogeyman he once was. During the entirety of Trump’s presidency, Democrats had a simple formula to rev up their base: Remind people of who was in the White House. Trump was so repellent to Democratic voters — and to many swing voters as well — that any candidate running with an “R” after their name was in danger of being sunk by the mere mention that they occupied the same party as the President. The results Tuesday night suggest that Trump no longer evokes that same passionate reaction. Which isn’t to say he is well liked. He isn’t. Just 42% of Virginia voters said they had a favorable view of the former president while 54% had an unfavorable one. (For what it’s worth, Biden’s numbers were similar; 45% approved of the job he is doing while 54% disapproved.) But disliking Trump wasn’t the voting issue on Tuesday that it had been in years past. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe spent the entirety of the Virginia campaign trying to tie Republican Glenn Youngkin to Trump. But with Trump out of office — and with his profile significantly lowered due to his being banned on Twitter and Facebook — that argument didn’t have salience. Hatred for Trump didn’t drive the Democratic base to the polls as it had in 2020. And for swing voters, they weren’t convinced that electing Youngkin — a business guy who made a name for himself on the campaign trail by wearing fleece vests — was a Trump clone.
2. The suburbs are back in play. Both Virginia and New Jersey are laden with suburbs. (Northern Virginia dominated by people who work in Washington. New Jersey has the metropolises of New York City and Philadelphia bordering it.) Which was very good news for Republicans on Tuesday. A significant majority of those voting — 61% — in Virginia lived in the suburbs and Youngkin won that group 53% to 47% over McAulliffe, a stunning turnaround from the 8-point margin for Biden over Trump in the Virginia suburbs in 2020. Some (much?) of Republican gains in the suburbs are attributable to Trump not being on the ballot or in office. (Trump was uniquely unappealing to suburban voters — especially women.) But, at least in the case of Virginia, Youngkin’s emphasis on education — from “woke” administrators to Covid-19 restrictions to critical race theory — resonated with suburbanites in ways that Republican have struggled to do of late. Youngkin wound up winning among white women by 14 points a year after Trump had lost them by 1.

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3. “Wokeness” is a major problem. That Youngkin ran and won on education should be a wake up call to every single Democratic elected official and party strategists in the country. Education has long been a Democratic issue but Youngkin was able to flip it on its head by focusing on the idea of “woke” teachers and administrators pushing things on kids — everything from transgender issues to race — that are simply inappropriate. Among the 1 in 4 Virginia voters who said education was the most important issue facing voters, Youngkin won by 11 points. “The people want the center not the woke nonsense or Trump imbecility,” tweeted Anthony Scaramucci, a Republican and former Trump ally. CNN’s Van Jones largely agreed, noting that his party comes across as “annoying and offensive and seem out of touch in ways that I don’t think show up in our feeds, when we’re looking at our echo chamber.” It’s hard not to see the success of Youngkin’s messaging on education as a reaction to the liberal echo chamber — most prominently featured on Twitter — that seeks to tell people what they can say and what they can’t. That rejection of politically correctness was at the center of Trump’s appeal to voters and appears to have continued on even after he has left office.
4. People know who’s in charge — and they don’t like what they see. In the musical “Hamilton,” the George Washington character tells Hamilton that “winning was easy, young man, governing’s harder.” That’s the lesson Democrats have learned over the first 10 months on this year as they have struggled to find ways to pass the major pieces of Biden’s agenda even while controlling all of the major levers of executive and legislative power in Washington. The last six weeks or so were disastrous for the party’s chances, with its disagreements between liberals and moderates over the so-called “hard” infrastructure bill and the more costly social safety net bill on full display every day. When voters hand you total control of Washington, they expect things to get done. And voters — especially Democratic base voters — don’t see the sort of accomplishments they expected at the start of the year. And that leads to unhappiness and apathy — neither of which are strong motivators to vote.
5. The Republican base is on fire. In polls leading up to the Virginia race, there appeared to be a major passion gap between the two party bases, with Republican extremely fired up to vote and Democrats, well, less so. That was born out in exit polling on Tuesday. Almost half of Virginia voters — 46% — said they “strongly disapproved” of how Biden was handling the presidency. That number was double the 23% who said they “strongly” approved of how Biden is doing the job. That sort of disparity is absolute electoral poison for Democrats. “The lesson over and over again in recent American politics is you can form a larger, more energized coalition in *opposition* to something rather than in *support* of it,” tweeted reporter Alex Roarty. “The public has a much better idea of what it doesn’t want than what it does want.” From “Let’s go Brandon” to opposition to Biden’s vaccine mandates, it’s clear that the Republican base is, to borrow a phrase, fired up and ready to go. And the Democratic base is, well, not.
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