It’s November 2009. President Barack Obama has been in office for 10 months, and the world is grappling with a troubled economy and an uncertain future. Political analysts lock in on gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey — both states Obama won handily — as a means to gauge the approval of the new Democratic president among his base.
Ultimately, former GOP Attorney General Bob McDonnell won in Virginia, while a little-known, bombastic New Jersey district attorney named Chris Christie came out of nowhere to catapult himself to Trenton. These two Republican victories sent a clear message to Obama: Your days with a congressional majority are numbered.
Twelve years later, history has repeated itself, and I did not see it coming. Last week, I predicted that Virginia’s former Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, would narrowly defeat his GOP challenger, businessman and former Rice University basketballer Glenn Youngkin. Similarly, I expected New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) to beat back a challenge from GOP state legislator Jack Ciattarelli by 8 to 12 points.
Spoiler alert: Neither of these things have happened. At 12:37 a.m. Wednesday, the Associated Press called Virginia for Youngkin, who was leading McAuliffe by approximately 85,000 votes with more than 95% of votes counted. As of Wednesday afternoon, Murphy also leads Ciattarelli by less than one percentage point with about 90% of all votes counted.
As I watched the Virginia election returns Tuesday evening, I was stunned. Not only did Youngkin defeat McAuliffe, but he never lost his lead as the returns came in. If the 2020 presidential election taught us anything, it’s that late-arriving mail-in ballots swing overwhelmingly for Democrats. But, as the percentage of votes counted increased, it became clear that McAuliffe wasn’t closing the gap enough. With all said and done, it looks to be a 2% victory, give or take, for the former college basketball star.
I’ve said this from the beginning, but Youngkin ran a fantastic campaign. By connecting himself with former President Donald Trump just enough to mobilize MAGA Republicans while steering clear of any Mar-a-Lago meddling, Youngkin played McAuliffe and his favorite campaigning companion, President Joe Biden, like a fiddle. Try as McAuliffe and Biden might to create it, the caricature of “Glenn Trumpkin” never caught on. Youngkin’s signature message — the perceived left-wing takeover of Virginia’s public schools — was never on Trump’s radar, which only boosted his narrative that McAuliffe was an out-of-touch puppet of teacher’s unions.
And like many other observers, I questioned Youngkin’s move to seemingly waste his Halloween Sunday campaigning in Abingdon, Jonesville and elsewhere in southwest Virginia. However, it worked out, as these notoriously conservative areas swung to Youngkin by greater margins than Trump ever received. Youngkin also held his own by winning more than a third of all votes in ulta-liberal Fairfax County, as well as 57% of white women — a key demographic in this race who narrowly preferred Biden to Trump last year.
So Glenn, I’m sorry for doubting you. Your victory might just go down as the greatest balancing act ever pulled off by a 6-foot-7 father of four.
Now on to New Jersey, where Biden’s promise to “Build Back Better” won him a 16-point victory over Trump in 2020. Most polls — and my own intuition — expected a slightly narrower Murphy victory. Such expectations follow the “presidential backlash,” a phenomenon in which, during off-year elections, the party out of power in Washington makes up some of the ground it lost around the country.
While I paid more attention to the Virginia race Tuesday evening, I couldn’t help but notice that Ciatarelli was outperforming nearly every poll. In the conservative-leaning Jersey Shore counties of Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean, Ciattarelli now seems poised to win by double-digit margins.
Similar to the forces that drove Youngkin’s win in Virginia, Ciattarelli’s relatively strong performance in Bergen County will be the major storyline if he completes this upset. Bergen, which consists entirely of New York City suburbs and is New Jersey’s most populous county, favored Biden by 16 points in 2020. But with 86% of this year’s votes in, Murphy’s lead is only four points.
Ciattarelli’s campaign focused largely on an ancient grievance of Garden State Republicans: notoriously high taxes and cost of living. Positioning himself as an anti-Trump but still conservative Republican, the former Hunterdon County legislator has brought this race to the wire. At this point, I expect the losing candidate to wage a recount campaign.
But what does this all mean? For one, I should’ve seen this Democratic doomsday coming. Inflation (or as some on the right call it, “Bidenflation”) is rising at historic rates, while labor shortages and limited oil supply continue to plague our recovery from a pandemic.
To what extent the Biden administration and congressional Democrats are to blame for such an underwhelming recovery will be debated for another year — and ultimately settled by next November’s midterms — but the momentum hasn’t been on Biden’s side for several months now. The president’s August withdrawal from Afghanistan drew criticism across the political spectrum. The cultural issues, perfectly illustrated by “Let’s go Brandon” chants across the country, have energized Republicans at a critical time.
The presidential backlash is a factor in Democrats’ losses, but it alone cannot explain why Youngkin and Ciatarelli (even if the latter loses) both closed double-digit deficits after their party flopped in the California recall just two months ago.
Like Obama after the Democrats’ 2009 losses, the ball is now in Biden’s court. His appearances with McAuliffe and Murphy did not energize his base, and it clearly pushed away too many Independents. For Democrats, campaigning on unrealized infrastructure proposals and a fear of COVID-19 as cases decline nationally was a losing move.
But if Biden is smart, he can learn from these 2021 failures and gear up for 2022. If he wants to stop the GOP from winning back Congress, Biden needs to give Democrats something to run on that will re-energize his 2020 coalition. Infrastructure is a great start, but I would not be surprised to see him press harder on free community college or climate action. I don’t believe Biden has the political capital to accomplish these goals right now, but he needs to find it.
Democrats still control both houses of Congress, even if House Republicans are suggesting Nancy Pelosi’s successor will soon be elected. Biden must know that, unless something major changes the landscape of what we saw this week, Republicans across America will be more than happy to vote him out next November.