Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia — which would’ve been surprising two months ago when Terry McAuliffe was considered the narrow favorite — suggests there is a way for Republicans to campaign and win without former President Donald Trump. After Tuesday’s election, it’s clear voters will respond to a candidate talking about issues that affect everyday families, and who lays out a positive vision to move forward. But Trump still hangs over the GOP like a sword of Damocles, as seen by Youngkin’s resistance to campaigning with him. Trump’s willingness to play in primaries — or, as we saw in Georgia, runoffs — can tank Republicans he doesn’t like. It is part of his DNA, and it hasn’t changed.
On the other side, Democrats’ takeaways from last week’s loss appear to be that Congress needed to pass the “Build Back Better” legislation to show results that they can run on, while also pushing back on the increasingly leftward tilt and “woke”-ness of their progressive wing.
“Some of these people need to go to a ‘woke’ detox center or something,” longtime Democratic operative James Carville cautioned his party. Indeed, when Rev. Al Sharpton says the progressives have gone too far, it’s something Democrats should consider.
All of this is true. Youngkin’s campaign does point to a successful, if tenuous, path out of Trump’s shadow — one that focuses on issues everyday Virginians experience, from the grocery tax to school closures, instead of Trump. Virginia voters, from the Trump base of the GOP to the suburban White women Democrats lost in droves, rejected a Democratic Party they see as not producing positive results and which continues to move further and further left.
But all of this misses the point.
There is one overarching reason Democrats had a tough Tuesday night and will potentially have a tough 2022. Many are missing the blindingly obvious forest while studying each individual leaf on each tree: President Joe Biden is not popular.
An NBC News poll late last month showed Biden at 42% approval, with 54% disapproving of his job as President as compared to 39% in April. Exit polling in Virginia showed most voters disapproved of Biden.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll in late October shows a mere 26% of the public feel America is headed in the right direction, compared with 60% — a spread of 34 points — who believe we are on the wrong track.
This manifests itself on issues.
The same NBC News poll last month showed Republicans with big advantages on issues ranging from the border and national security to the economy and, as the poll put it, “getting things done.” That’s damning for Biden and the Democrats, and it explains why Democratic voter enthusiasm just wasn’t there last week.
With much being made of Tuesday and the upcoming 2022 midterms echoing 2009 and 2010, it’s important to remember that in the wake of Barack Obama’s inauguration and sky-high popularity the GOP was left for political dead. A May 2009 cover of TIME magazine declared Republicans an “endangered species.”
But as Obama’s popularity dimmed, GOP hopes rose. I ran communications for the Republican National Committee in 2010. Our “magic number” for Obama was 46, meaning if his approval was below that, we believed we would take back the House of Representatives. Above that and we just didn’t know. Our job, daily, was to do whatever we could to keep him at or below 46. Ultimately, he was at 45 the week of the 2010 midterms, and the GOP had a wave election.
Biden’s numbers are obviously well below that, and he doesn’t possess Obama’s oratorical or political gifts. Still, regardless of whether he signs the now passed $1 trillion infrastructure bill, Biden does have some good news: 531,000 jobs added in October with strong past month revisions, and the announcement of an experimental Pfizer antiviral pill that according to studies reduces death and hospitalization from Covid-19.
Given how many issues from last week’s elections were Covid-related — school closures, jobs, inflation, supply chain — this is a lifeline Biden and Democrats desperately need.
The other lesson from Tuesday’s election is that we simply do not know where Biden will be yet. Some saw a GOP takeover in the House and Senate as inevitable even before last Tuesday night. One colleague told me the week before the elections that it was “in the bag.”
But nothing is ever guaranteed in politics, and a year is a very long time. As we absorb the results of Virginia’s race, Republicans should not be measuring curtains but focusing on their task of building the House where the curtains will hang.