DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Four years ago, a Democratic sweep in Virginia and victories in scattered off-year suburban elections were the forerunner of the party’s future success in regaining the House in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.
Republicans hope their similar victories [Nov. 2] in Virginia and elsewhere prove the same advance indicator. And many Democrats fear the GOP breakthroughs and a negative political environment from the COVID pandemic’s continuing impact foreshadow a poor mid-term showing in 2022 that could cost them the House — and perhaps the Senate.
Perhaps more importantly, Glenn Youngkin’s election as Virginia’s next governor showed Republicans a path to benefit from the GOP enthusiasm engendered by former President Donald Trump — and avoid the negative fallout from the former president’s controversial presidency and his continuing claims that fraud caused his 2020 defeat.
A businessman and neophyte candidate, Youngkin succeeded in keeping some distance from Trump. Virginia’s voters rated him 10 points more favorably than the former president, exit polls showed. Of course, next year may prove harder for GOP candidates who owe their nominations more directly to the former president’s backing.
The Democratic defeat also reflected Biden’s poor political standing. The president made two visits to boost Democratic challenger Terry McAuliffe, but exit polls showed the two veteran politicians with almost identical negative ratings. Barring an economic pickup, Biden’s poor job approval numbers loom as a real drag for Democrats in 2022, just as Trump damaged GOP House candidates in 2018.
More immediately, the results could complicate the efforts by Democratic congressional leaders to maintain the party unity needed to pass Biden’s two signature legislative proposals, especially the $1.75 trillion package of social and environmental proposals.
Youngkin’s victory was far from the only positive for Republicans. In Virginia, they won the other two statewide offices, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and recaptured at least a share of control of the House of Delegates.
And in the other governor’s race in New Jersey, GOP candidate Jack Ciattarelli threw an unexpected scare into heavily favored Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy in a race so close it may take days to decide. In New York’s Long Island suburbs, Republicans recaptured two district attorney posts. In Pennsylvania, they held a statewide Supreme Court seat. And in Texas, they narrowly picked up a legislative seat in heavily Hispanic San Antonio.
In Virginia, McAuliffe initially was a strong favorite to regain the governorship he held from 2014-2018 in a state that has recently voted increasingly Democratic. But the result represented the repetition of a persistent historical pattern, as, for the 11th time in 12 gubernatorial elections, Virginians chose the party that lost the presidency the previous year. Only McAuliffe in 2013 broke that pattern.
The GOP nominee ran strongly in conservative areas and, by skillfully reflecting parental concerns about problems in their schools, he cut recent Democratic margins in the Washington suburbs. He was helped by McAuliffe’s impolitic statement in a debate in which he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” and by the continuing economic slowdown from the pandemic.
The reaction against the party in power and the looming signs of future political problems fit a recent electoral pattern in which one party’s triumph is inevitably followed by a reaction as the victors struggle to fulfill their promises.
Biden’s job approval numbers have suffered from his inability to achieve his primary campaign promises of halting the pandemic and restoring economic growth, and from such self-inflicted wounds as the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and his mishandling of the immigration situation.
Even before [Nov. 2], independent analysts and party strategists were predicting Republicans are likely next year to regain one and maybe both congressional houses. In the last four mid-term elections, the party in the White House has lost the House three times and the Senate twice.
A potential short-term danger for Biden is that some congressional Democrats from competitive districts may see [Nov. 2’s] results as a warning to rethink their support of his costly, far-ranging social programs. There was a reason Democratic leaders sought to have the House vote on Biden’s agenda before [Nov. 2’s] elections.
At the same time, one Democratic hope of averting a mid-term 2022 disaster is to show by passing his agenda that they can govern. They believe that millions of Americans will benefit from his proposals for infrastructure reconstruction and for uniform pre-kindergarten schooling, assistance with day care costs, and expanded support for health and drug costs.
Despite Youngkin’s victory in Virginia, Republicans have their own potential problems, especially since Trump remains a political wild card. In California’s September gubernatorial recall election, the fact that the main alternative to the Democratic incumbent was an all-out Trump backer helped Gov. Gavin Newsom decisively retain his office in that heavily Democratic state.
Trump’s efforts to play a major role in choosing GOP candidates in key 2022 Senate races in Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania could affect his party’s chances in the general election. The Virginia result suggests Republicans would do better in contested states by nominating less Trump-like alternatives.
Still, for the first election in five years, Republicans have every reason to be pleased and Democrats every reason for concern.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2021 The Dallas Morning News.