On the Democrats’ (mostly) bad election night

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).
  2. In New Jersey, a state Biden won by 16(!) points last year, the incumbent Democratic governor barely squeaked by to win re-election, on track to win by just a couple points. The party also got crushed in rural South Jersey. This included seeing the defeat of longtime state Senate President Steve Sweeney — who represented a district in that area — by a commercial trucker who spent a grand total of $153 on his campaign (half of which was literally spent on donuts).
  3. In Texas, Republicans flipped a San Antonio-area state House district that Biden won by 14 points last year and is nearly three-quarters Hispanic.
  4. In Minneapolis, voters rejected a proposal to abolish its police department and replace it with a “Department of Public Safety.”
  5. Democrats suffered stinging losses and setbacks across deep-blue New York, especially in New York City, where Republicans made inroads throughout municipal governments. Further north in Buffalo, a socialist mayoral candidate running as a police abolitionist lost resoundingly to the incumbent mayor (whom she had defeated in the primary and who ran a write-in campaign to keep his job). At the statewide level, voters rejected ballot measures to make voting in the state easier and overhaul parts of the redistricting process.
  6. In Atlanta, whose city has seen a massive spike in homicides over the last year, voters sent two “tough on crime” candidates to a runoff election.

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.
  2. In Virginia, turnout was up across the state, but there was a massive boost in areas that are more rural and disproportionately home to non-college white voters, which benefited Republicans. Compared to 2017 — the last time Virginia hosted race for governor — turnout was up 136% in these areas versus just ~120% in the state’s metro regions. Non-college white voters broke overwhelmingly Republican — even more so than they did for Trump last year. Democrats also lost ground in some suburban areas that helped propel Biden to the presidency last year, hindering their ability to balance out Republican gains in more exurban and rural places.
  3. Some college-educated white voters — a group that began voting more Democratic during the Trump years — reverted to their pre-Trump voting patterns.
  4. Latinos seem to be continuing their slide away from Democrats. To be sure, our information at this point is limited — we have results from the aforementioned state House special election, and the exit poll findings in the Virginia governor’s race are conflicting. We will know more once we get precinct-level data and can analyze majority-Latino areas, but suffice it to say there are signs that this is a continued problem for Democrats coming out of last year’s election.
  5. Non-white voters — especially black voters — who are traditionally a strong Democratic constituency, were less motivated to turn out, and some may have broken for Republicans.
  6. Importantly, Republicans in both Virginia and New Jersey outperformed Donald Trump’s 2020 margins across the board — a possible sign that when he is not on the ballot, they might actually do better. (Of course, the national GOP was quick to give him credit for the evening’s results, as was Trump himself.)

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.



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