The good news for Democrats is that the mid-term elections are still a year away. More troubling is how they will respond to Tuesday’s wake-up call. Early signs are that the moderates and progressives in Congress, organized as circular firing squads shooting inward, are not drawing the same conclusions. Despite suddenly agreeing to support both infrastructure bills, some are still jostling for intra-party advantage rather than taking on their common enemy. And, while every state is different, the Republicans now appear to have a playbook for using a more cunning Donald Trump to their advantage in purple and even blue states.
It’s easy to hyperventilate over what happened yesterday, but we need context. In 11 of the last 12 elections, Virginia has elected a governor from the party opposite the president. In New Jersey, no Democratic governor has been re-elected since 1977. Terry McAuliffe was a flawed candidate. An uncharismatic party operative and fundraiser, he was long associated with the Clintons and barely eked to victory in 2013. His tone-deaf efforts to nationalize the Virginia race into an anti-Trump screed while ignoring his opponent’s deft campaign to poach 2020 Biden voters set him up for failure. He was seen as a gaffe-prone tired “incumbent,” tethered to a President whose popularity – among Democrats and especially among Independents—had plummeted dramatically in the past two months. It’s perhaps surprising he didn’t lose by more.
In blue New Jersey’s closer-than-expected contest, Phil Murphy had done better than other governors dealing with Covid, so more Republican voters were animated by high taxes and cultural wedge issues than were Independents stirred by Murphy’s embrace of gun safety, abortion rights and attacking Trump when Trump was not on the ballot. The biggest surprise there was less the GOP challenger’s inroads into Democratic voters than how far he exceeded Trump’s votes in Republican counties.
Phil Murphy’s slim victory and Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin’s clear-cut defeat of McAuliffe are real signs of trouble ahead for Democrats in next year’s Congressional races. To reclaim control of the legislative branch the GOP needs to flip just five seats in the House and one Senate seat.
Through heavily partisan redistricting, Republican state legislatures could achieve their House goal well before next year’s balloting. A rash of retirements by vulnerable Democrats would make matters worse. In both NJ and VA, GOP candidates for state legislatures beat Trump’s 2020 numbers by a median margin of more than double digits. If this were to happen in 2022 congressional races nationwide, Republicans could dominate the House with a pickup of between 51-60 seats.
In the wake of yesterday’s results, Larry Sabato’s respected “Crystal Ball” has shifted its ratings of four 2022 Senate races toward the Republicans. Arizona, Georgia and Nevada move from “Lean Democratic” to “Toss Up,” and Colorado changes from “Safe Democratic” to “Likely Democratic.”) And that’s before GOP Governor John Sununu gets into the NH Senate race.
A change in control of either House or Senate would spell the end many 2020 Biden voters’ hopes for not just a respite from Trump’s round-the-clock drama and malevolent kakocracy (please look it up) but real progress on pressing issues, guided by competent leadership and comity at home and abroad.
Biden’s mandate, given his slim congressional majorities, was not to be a transformational president like FDR or LBJ, but to be, in the words of Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) simply “normal and stop the chaos.” For all of his years of experience, Joe Biden has not managed expectations well. Obviously, if his favorability doesn’t get dramatically better than his currently abysmal 43 percent, even the best candidates will be dragged down to defeat, and opportunities for even modest progress will be lost. In 2024 the abnormality and chaos could return.