On the Democrats’ (mostly) bad election night

Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin claims victory

On Tuesday night, America hosted its first slate of major elections in the Joe Biden era. The most-watched contest was the governor’s race in Virginia, but there were other consequential contests in the state as well as municipal-level elections in other states around the country. These gave us a first glimpse at the mood of the electorate during Biden’s presidency.

And the results were not good for the Democratic Party.

So, first, what exactly happened?

  1. In Virginia, which Biden carried by 10 points just a year ago, Republicans won back the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general offices as well as the House of Delegates, which Democrats captured just two years ago. Moreover, in winning back the state House, Republicans flipped a handful of seats in southern Virginia that have significant working-class black populations (who historically are reliably Democratic).

It wasn’t all bad news for Democrats and progressives, however. In Boston, a city that has never had a mayor who wasn’t both white and male, voters elected Michelle Wu, the city’s first Asian and first woman mayor, to lead it for the next four years.

Additionally, Democrats can take some solace in the fact that they did not lose as much ground as feared in suburban areas, which swung heavily in their direction during the Trump years. This was evident in Virginia, where Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe actually improved on his 2013 margins in suburban municipalities in Northern Virginia (outside of Washington, DC) and around Richmond. Moreover, Democrats maintained control of all the state House seats they won in those areas during the Trump years. Their losses in the House came in areas that were more rural or exurban as well as areas where turnout increases among black voters — a strongly Democratic voting bloc — were lower than in the rest of the state.

So, now that we know what happened, how and why did all this happen? Plenty of analysis is still being conducted in the days and weeks ahead to determine the answer to this, but here’s what we know so far:

  1. The national environment is just bad for Democrats right now. Biden’s approval rating is in the dumps, inflation is ticking up, and national Democrats have done pretty much nothing with their power since passing the American Rescue Plan back in March.

There’s a lot to chew on here, but one overarching takeaway from the night is that Democrats have a serious (and growing) problem with non-college-educated and working-class voters — especially white ones in rural areas. This goes for states other than Virginia: if the party is unable to juice turnout in reliably blue cities and hold their suburban gains, they will have to stop the bleeding with these voters if they want to compete statewide. (They will likely need to do that even in states where they do get the numbers they need in urban and suburban areas.)

Figuring out how to accomplish this will be important if Democrats hope to avoid a bloodbath of a midterm election next year that could leave them out of power around the country for the rest of the decade — and set the stage for a possible Trump comeback in 2024.

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.