Republicans pushed Democrats out of the Virginia governorship and did unexpectedly well in heavily Democratic New Jersey on Wednesday, signaling trouble for President Joe Biden’s party heading into next year’s congressional elections.
Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive, beat former Governor Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday vote, with the Democrat conceding on Wednesday morning. Youngkin had distanced himself just enough from former President Donald Trump to win back moderates who had supported Biden just a year ago.
In New Jersey, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy held a narrow lead over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, even though registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans there by more than 1 million.
Both saw strong gains in the suburbs from independent voters who had been turned off by Trump’s style of politics. The results in states that Biden won easily in 2020 suggest that Democrats’ razor-thin majorities in Congress are highly vulnerable in the 2022 elections.
Republican control of both, or even one, chamber of Congress would give the party the ability to block Biden’s legislative agenda during the final two years of his current term in office.
The loss also gives Trump an opportunity to point to Virginia as a repudiation of Biden as he sets the stage for another possible presidential run in 2024.
Despite the losses, the top Democrats in Congress vowed to push ahead on Biden’s legislative agenda, hoping to pass twin bills worth a combined $2.75 trillion to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges, as well as bolster the social safety net and fight climate change. They have already been held up by months of infighting between Democrats’ progressive and moderate wings.
Some senior Democrats said the party would need to do a better job of explaining the benefits of those programs. The party was seen as failing to do on Obamacare during the 2010 midterm elections that then-President Barack Obama called a “shellacking” for his party.
“We are going to learn from history,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries, who heads the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters on Tuesday. “We are going to message with simplicity and repetition.”
Youngkin, 54, declared victory after a campaign in which he focused on parents’ anger over schools’ handling of COVID-19, as well as teaching on race and gender issues. He walked a fine line on Trump, taking care to not alienate the former president’s hardcore base without offering a full-throated endorsement of his false claims about widespread election fraud.
McAuliffe’s efforts to paint his rival, a former chief executive of the Carlyle Group Inc, as a Trump acolyte fell flat with voters at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are at the lowest level of his presidency, according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll, conducted last Wednesday and Thursday.
“Together, we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth,” Youngkin told a rally in Chantilly, Virginia, early on Wednesday.
Republican congressional campaigns may follow Youngkin’s model of focusing on culture wars and promising to give parents more control over public schools.
Youngkin and other Republicans latched onto concerns from parents that schools are teaching left-wing ideas to combat racism, at the expense of more traditional subjects.
He vowed to ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” a legal framework that examines how racism shapes U.S. laws and policies and is linked to anti-racism concepts such as “white privilege.” Virginia school officials say critical race theory as a subject is not taught in classrooms.
Republicans also appeared to erase the Democrats’ 10-seat lead in Virginia’s House of Delegates, appearing to gain a 50-50 split or perhaps a one-seat advantage.
Virginia Republicans picked Youngkin in an unusual convention format in May, rather than by a statewide primary. That format was designed to pick a more moderate candidate, rather than one more closely allied with Trump.
Even so, Trump sought to claim credit, thanking “my BASE” in a statement for putting Youngkin over the top.
NEW JERSEY WOBBLES
In New Jersey, Democrat Murphy trailed overnight but squeaked into the lead on Wednesday morning as vote counting inched forward in several heavily Democratic counties. Even so, the close call could send more chills through the Democratic Party, which has been unable to pass Biden’s signature legislation nationally despite razor-thin majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress.
Murphy, 64, ran as an unabashed liberal and would be the first Democratic governor to win re-election in New Jersey in four decades.
Ciattarelli had faced an uphill battle in New Jersey, where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans.
Ciattarelli, 59, is a former state legislator and business owner who has criticized Murphy for requiring masks in schools and day-care facilities. He campaigned on cutting taxes and supporting law enforcement, but does not support banning abortion – an unusual position for a Republican.