Democrats suffered a demoralizing defeat in Virginia, losing all three top statewide offices in a commonwealth that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points a year earlier, and are just narrowly hanging on in reliably blue New Jersey, further highlighting the dour national mood aimed at the party. The issues raised by the dismal night were clear: The party had lost some ground in the suburbs and did nothing to stem Republican gains in rural enclaves; failed to recognize the potency of core Republican arguments or produce arguments to negate them; and misjudged the strength of anti-Donald Trump messaging a year removed from the former President’s time in office.
What and who to blame for those mistakes, however, has proven more elusive.
Before any major network had even called the race in Virginia, and while Terry McAuliffe‘s aides worked to keep the mood up inside the Hilton ballroom that hosted the campaign’s election night party, operatives both inside and outside the room were acknowledging the reality that the cash-bar affair would soon turn into a wake for the Democratic Party’s standing in America.
“Officially, this race is still too close to call,” one campaign official as the campaign continued to monitor votes. “Unofficially, it’s rough.”
Even loyal McAuliffe supporters wasted no time searching for answers.
“Right now, it’s the wrong track in America,” said Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, pointing to polls that show many Americans see the country going in the wrong direction. “I’m disappointed that it’s the wrong track … but given that’s the way the American people feel right now, they’re going to be changed-oriented.”
Democratic camps also quickly formed in the wake of the loss, each pointing blame at each other like a political circular firing squad.
To some, the losses and current standing of the party was Biden’s fault — the McAuliffe campaign saw their standing with swing voters sink quickly after the chaotic withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan over the summer and noted that the President’s underwater approval rating had weighed McAuliffe and others down.
To others, it was Congress — the deeply gridlocked body failed to pass either the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and even larger social spending bill ahead of the off-year elections, denying McAuliffe any chance to run on the idea that Democrats in power get things done. This was particularly damaging in Virginia, Democrats worried, given the party has been in control of the governor’s mansion for eight years.
McAuliffe’s campaign watched as Congress pushed the possible vote on both bills closer and closer to the election throughout October. When it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, an exasperated Virginia Democrat couldn’t take it anymore. “These f****** people,” they said.
And to even more, the blame landed squarely on McAuliffe — he ran an uninspired campaign, underestimated both Republican Glenn Youngkin and the issues that animated his base, and spent too much time and money tying his opponent to Trump, a strategy that did boost Democratic turnout but gave independents and Republicans few reasons to back the former governor. At the core of these concerns is the idea that McAuliffe did not effectively respond to attacks from Youngkin, offering only sheepish explanations and a claim that he was taken out of context when the Republican campaign seized on his McAuliffe saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
“There is no question that McAuliffe relied too much on Trump in absence of anything else and that was a mistake,” said a senior Democratic operative whose organization spent money in Virginia. But that wasn’t the only issue. It was also “making a terrible mistake when talking about parents and education and then being too stubborn to address it for days. Overconfidence and stubbornness are a bad combination.”
The reality for Democrats, who woke up on Wednesday staring down the painful possibility that the 2022 midterms could be even more disastrous if nothing changes, is that a host of factors — from rage at Democratic control in Washington to Covid-19 fatigue to inflation — played a role in the bloodbath that was Tuesday night.
“The truth is we just did slightly worse across all demographics and regions,” said David Turner, a top operative at the Democratic Governors Association. “So, it is hard to point to one thing that would make the difference. It’s everything that was put together made the difference.”
The worst outcome, said Turner and others, would be not learning lessons from the losses.
“If it was an easy answer, we would have it. Truly, if it was an easy answer and it was a binary, yes or no question, we would have figured it out,” said Geoff Burgan, communications director for the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “At the end of the day, you have to have a message that resonates with working class folks across the spectrum and pretty clearly puts your candidate on the people’s side and makes clear that your opponent is not for them.”
Exhaustion is real and Trump isn’t the only answer
Democratic voters need a jolt.
As McAuliffe’s campaign entered the final months, his top aides and advisers began to see troubling signs: Voters were tired, unmotivated and largely uninterested in politics. After four years of being told every election with Trump either in office or on the ballot was the “most important of your lifetime,” Democratic voters were eager for a break and began tuning out politics to get one.
“I think there was so much passion for the presidential race, we just felt so invigorated. … And I just don’t feel like that right now,” Janis Gillespie, a 68-year-old retired teacher, told CNN as she waited to hear first lady Jill Biden speak outside Richmond in October. “I am worried about it.”
The McAuliffe campaign was feeling it, too.
“If people don’t wake up,” said one Virginia Democrat at the start of October, “we are in trouble.”
To stir that wake up call, McAuliffe’s campaign doubled down on their strategy of linking anything and everything that Youngkin did to Trump, hoping raising the specter of the former President would remind voters of why elections mattered. It wasn’t only McAuliffe making this case, too.
Biden traveled to the commonwealth — twice — and unequivocally carried the McAuliffe messaging on Youngkin and Trump. So, too, did former President Barack Obama, questioning the Republican’s character and telling voters, “You can’t run ads telling me you are a regular old hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy.”
The strategy wasn’t a complete failure. Turnout in the race was enormous — well over 3 million people voted, including more than 1.6 million for McAuliffe. But, Democrats argued after the fact, the strategy only served to harden McAuliffe’s base, failing to broaden his appeal to people who may have voted against Trump but knew Youngkin wasn’t him.
“It’s incumbent on Democrats to be loud and clear about what we’re for and not just running against Donald Trump,” said a Biden adviser. “It’s also clear that voters are unhappy about inaction and this drives home the point that Democrats in Congress should move quickly on our agenda.”
Even McAuliffe knew near the close of his campaign that the Democratic exhaustion was real and his Trump strategy may have been flawed.
“It is fair to say,” McAuliffe told reporters on the final day of the campaign, “people have been exhausted from the last four years of Donald Trump.”
A few days earlier, the same candidate who spent months tying his opponent to Trump claimed to CNN that the race wasn’t about the former President.
‘We have to give them something’
When voters elected Democrats in 2020, they expected action, top Democrats in Washington and Virginia said. With Congress stalled, the party in power is now paying the price.
“People voted for us last year,” said a Democrat close to the McAuliffe campaign who was frustrated with Congress. “We have to give them something.”
McAuliffe and his top advisers had hoped they could at least close the campaign by listing all the Virginia-specific benefits in the two spending bills currently stuck in Congress. With no Republican support and Democratic disagreement, that messaging strategy wasn’t viable and many of McAuliffe’s biggest boosters, like Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, became so concerned that they warned their colleagues of what could happen.
Once the results were in on Wednesday, Kaine and others felt validated.
“Look, congressional Dems hurt Terry McAuliffe,” Kaine said on Wednesday. “Our inability to come together and get a result hurt him.”
Not everyone agreed with this view.
“I don’t know how you run for governor on what’s happening in the US Congress,” said Beyer. “I think having a president with 42% popularity and a Congress that seems to have a hard time governing in the short run is not helpful, but I don’t think that determined the outcome of the election.”
The lessons Democrats have taken from this, however, is that getting things done in the coming months is critical.
“If voters are frustrated with inaction, the obvious response is to be more decisive and pass bills based on an agenda for the middle class that received a record-breaking 81 million votes last year,” a source close to the White House said. “And there’s a strong consensus about that across the party. Doing less is plainly the opposite of what people want.”
Democrats’ rural floor slides lower
Democrats have long had a rural voter problem and the Virginia results prove it is just getting worse.
The party was able to largely paper over the issue in 2020 with a strong surge in the nation’s suburbs, helping Democrats win the White House. But Tuesday night highlighted the issue is not close to being addressed and McAuliffe aides admit they underestimated the level of intensity and strength for Youngkin in rural counties across the commonwealth, where the Republican won around 80% of the vote. While their populations may be small, the overwhelming victories ate into McAuliffe’s advantage in population centers and proved calamitous.
“Terry got a record number of votes and was still losing rural areas 85-15. We can’t win elections that way,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic consultant who previously worked for McAuliffe. “It wasn’t enough to counter how excited Republicans were in other parts and how low our ceiling is in rural communities right now. … It’s getting worse.”
This problem was exacerbated by Youngkin’s ability to cut into Democratic margins in the suburbs, breaking through a wall the party built during the Trump years and cutting into their margins just enough to sink McAuliffe.
For Republicans, it’s an encouraging sign — one could portend greater success in the 2022 midterms, much of which will be fought in suburban and exurban counties. “The Democratic Party was a temporary home for many suburban voters the past few years and they’re breaking back toward Republicans,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association.
And for Democrats, it’s a structural concern that could spell doom in the midterms.
“The House majority was built in the suburbs, with voters who had never voted for a Democrat before Hillary Clinton, and it’s critical to remember that,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic consultant who helped lead the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when the party won the majority in 2018. “These were, and still are, tax-conscious voters focused on keeping their families healthy and their paychecks secure, and that’s all the more reason to stop quibbling about price tags, get these job-creating bills passed, and start selling them.”
One reason for this success is Youngkin’s ability to tap into broader Republican issues that have been elevated by conservative media — from parental grievances around education and the perceived teaching of critical race theory to rising gas and commodity prices — and present them in a more palatable, less abrasive way. Youngkin closed his campaign by making an emotional argument to parents, pledging to make them central in their children’s education while McAuliffe would remove so-called parental control.
For Democrats going forward, finding an answer to cultural issues like these will be critical. Every Republican midterm campaign watched the results on Tuesday with eager eyes, hoping to use a similar strategy to defeat their Democratic opponent.
But for Virginia Democrats who woke up to see their commonwealth in dramatically different hands on Wednesday morning, the totality of issues they faced in this race — and the possibility of the party not learning its lesson — is what worries them about Democrats’ prospects going forward.
“(Youngkin’s campaign) was having an emotional argument. And we were trying to have a rational one without an emotional response,” said a senior Democratic operative working in Virginia. But, they added, “Biden dragged us down. Democrats dragged us down. … We have a party in power that is just not doing anything.”
As for whether the party will learn its lessons from Virginia, the operative said it was too soon to tell.
“But,” they said, “a place to start is getting some legislation done when Democrats are in power across the board.”