After Tuesday night brought an unexpected wave of losses and toss-ups, Democrats are left with the question of what happened and how they should move forward, but are far from united over the message that voters were trying to send.
The governor-elect ran a campaign that focused strongly on social issues like critical race theory (CRT) in Virginia schools, distinguishing himself from other Republicans who have focused more on economic issues.
And this approach to his campaign garnered impressive results for Youngkin. In Loudon County, the epicenter of controversy over CRT and a historically blue district, Youngkin tallied around 45 percent of the vote, denying McAuliffe the support needed in the county to make up for his losses elsewhere in the state.
Even worse for Democrats, Republicans on Tuesday took back the Virginia House of Delegates in a historic sweep.
Democrats faced another unpleasant surprise Tuesday as incumbent Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey, considered a shoo in by many, has yet to declare victory due to razor-thin margins in the state. At the time of publication, Murphy was leading Republican candidate Jack Ciattarelli by less than a percentage point.
While the race is too close to call, it is a harrowing sign for Democrats that the historically blue state is closely divided.
A Minneapolis referendum to abolish the police department in the city where George Floyd died also failed 57 percent to 43 percent, highlighting significant opposition to Democratic efforts to defund or abolish the police.
Many commentators portrayed these elections as a referendum on President Joe Biden and Democrats’ progressive policies.
But some Democrats see the vote as a mandate for them to double down and advance Biden’s two-part agenda, including a $1.75 trillion reconciliation bill and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) brushed off the lackluster election night.
Asked about her reaction to the Virginia results, Pelosi said “Well, the people have spoken. We respect the result.” But Pelosi insisted that the result will have no effect on House Democrats’ agenda.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) blamed the results on Democrats’ failure to move Biden’s agenda forward in Congress as squabbles within the party continue.
“A lot of politics is about timing,” Kaine commented. “And there was a time to do this that would have helped in both [Virginia and New Jersey].
Kaine added, “[Terry McAuliffe] could have had a really great wind at his back if Democrats had been willing to get the deal done.”
Moderates in the party disagree, however.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has become the de facto leader of moderates in their negotiations over the budget bill, told reporters that the fault lies with McAuliffe.
“You can’t win in Virginia if you only appeal to very liberal voters,” Warner commented.
A key swing vote, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also blamed the party for the failure.
“All of us have to be more attentive to the people back home,” Manchin observed, adding that the real message from voters Tuesday was a demand that Democrats slow down and consider the policies they put forward.
Manchin also criticized his party for stoking division by trying to legislate on its own: “We have a divided country that needs to be united, and you can’t unite it through a one-party system.”
Republicans, for their part, rejoiced over the news, predicting that it is a good sign for their party in 2022.
“Congratulations Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin,” Senate Republicans wrote in a tweet. “It’s a great night for Virginia and the rest of the country.”
“And,” they added, “it’s a sign of things to come in 2022!”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of the results on Twitter: “Voters just sent Democrats an unmistakable message: Stop misreading your mandate and ramming through a radical agenda that nobody wants. Democrats need to listen to the American people and drop their reckless taxing and spending spree that would hurt families and help China.”
However, most Democrats have refrained from commenting on the Virginia results altogether, and it remains unclear how the party will move forward in the wake of these defeats. Many moderates are facing tough reelection campaigns in 2022, and may see these results as sobering.