As she campaigned for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, last week, US vice-president Kamala Harris told voters that the result would reverberate well beyond their state.
“What happens in Virginia will in large part determine what happens in 2022, 2024 and on,” she told the crowds. Now, less than a week later, Democrats in Washington and across the US are fretting that Harris was right.
Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin, the former co-chief executive of the private equity group Carlyle, won Virginia by two points over McAuliffe, a veteran Democrat and former governor. Although polls had suggested a tight race, the result was a stunning defeat in a state where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 10 points just a year ago.
A second governor's race in New Jersey was narrowly won by the incumbent, Phil Murphy, after a protracted vote count – an arguably more unsettling result for Democrats who had assumed that Murphy would sail easily to re-election against Republican opponent Jack Ciattarelli. Biden carried New Jersey by a 16-point margin in 2020.
"The bottom line is that this is about Biden," said Kyle Kondik of the non-partisan University of Virginia Center for Politics. "If the political environment is like this next year, you expect the Republicans to win both the House and the Senate."
The results paint a distressing picture for the president’s party ahead of next year’s midterms, when control of Congress will be up for grabs. Analysts said if the swing against the Democrats is replicated next year, they stand to lose their grip on the House and the Senate, which they hold by slim margins.
That would leave the president with little prospect of passing legislation as he heads into the second half of his four-year term and contemplates a re-election bid in 2024.
The outcomes in Virginia and New Jersey – alongside a number of Democratic losses in other local elections – suggest that the party’s difficulty in hanging on to voters is part of a national trend.
They come as the president's approval rating has dropped to lows, amid public discontent over rising consumer prices, the lingering Covid-19 pandemic and his handling of the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, lawmakers remain locked in protracted internecine warfare over Biden’s two-pronged legislative agenda: a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package and a revised $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better” plan to invest in childcare, public healthcare and climate initiatives.
Speaking from the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Biden urged Democrats to end their infighting and rally behind his agenda in order to “produce results” for Americans.
“People want us to get things done. They want us to get things done,” the president said. “People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things. From Covid to school to jobs, to a whole range of things – and the cost of a gallon of gasoline.”
If his economic agenda were signed into law, he added, the US would be “in a position where you’re going to see a lot of those things ameliorated, quickly and swiftly”.
Many Democrats on Capitol Hill share that view. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, has vowed to press ahead with votes on the two bills quickly. But there are still lingering divisions, including with moderate Democrats in the Senate, so the fate of the legislation remains unclear.
“The focus [for Democrats] needs to be on addressing the public’s concerns and getting Biden’s approval ratings up,” said Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “How do you do that? It is easier said than done.”
On Wednesday a Biden adviser noted that the components of Biden’s economic agenda remained very popular, and dismissed giving too much national significance to the results, saying the midterms were still a year away and a lot could happen between now and then.
But Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia who has been holding out for smaller spending measures, suggested that the message from voters was to tread cautiously.
“You better be very careful [about] what we do and how we do it and make sure that it is transparent, and people know exactly what the results will be and what the intent is,” Manchin said. “The country is very divided.”
In Virginia, a record more than 3m ballots were cast in the governor’s race, with results indicating especially strong turnout in rural Republican areas of the state, compared to a relatively weaker turnout in Democratic-leaning areas, such as the affluent suburbs surrounding Washington DC. The results – mirrored in other contests across the country – suggested an “enthusiasm gap” between fired-up Republican voters and less-exercised Democrats.
“After a big presidential victory, the winning party gets complacent and the losing party gets angry,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “You had a much higher turnout among people who voted for Trump in 2020 than people who voted for Biden in 2020.”
"Democrats seem to think that just because they voted Trump out of office in 2020, their work is done. That was just the deposit," said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist based in Boston. Rather than reacting to Republican messaging and "playing defence", Democrats needed to get better at explaining to voters what they would deliver for them, she added.
“Democrats need to start to understand that,” Marsh said. “Play offence, play ruthlessly, and play hard, because otherwise Democrats are going to lose an awful lot of elections one year from now.”
Republicans celebrated the results on Wednesday, arguing that Youngkin provided a playbook for their party heading into the midterms. The political novice walked a tightrope to appeal to Trump’s loyal base of supporters while also scooping up independents who had eschewed the former president.
At the same time, Republicans said they benefited from voters' broader rejection of left-wing progressive politics. A referendum to disband the police force in Minneapolis, Minnesota, failed on Tuesday night, while in Buffalo, New York, a write-in Democrat defeated a socialist candidate by a 17-point margin in the mayoral race there.
“Republicans running on issues that matter to people, who keep their distance from Donald Trump, can win in Democratic leaning states in the post-Trump era,” said Ayres, the Republican pollster. “Most voters, even in northern cities, are within shouting distance to the centre rather than on the far left.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021