Update 567 — These Two Shall Pass:
Virginia’s Message for the Midterms
Democrats in Congress and nationally, pausing a moment to reflect on electoral setbacks in Virginia and elsewhere on Tuesday, might consider whether the cause was the failure to pass BBB or even BIF. We can speculate about what impact passage of these bills might have had. But this moment and the bills too shall pass, and we will know their impact soon enough.
Democrats’ understandable introspection can only delay the day when the bills bring tangible benefits to voters. Despite, or because of, the election results Tuesday, producing legislative results — passing BBB and BIF, needed octane for the economic recovery, and the material benefits promised to voters — now urgent, makes adjournment in December a do or die deadline.
Good weekends all,
With this year’s elections over, attention shifts toward the 2022 midterm elections, now just a year away. After the Republican victory in Virginia, the clock is ticking louder for Democrats to deliver on their policy proposals as their control of government is under threat. Midterms are always an uphill battle for the party in power, but if Democrats pass their Build Back Better agenda, voters will start to feel the impact in 2022.
As President Biden’s approval rating has dropped to 42 percent — particularly souring among independent voters — voter turnout will be crucial in determining control of Congress. Thirty-nine percent approve of the job Democratic congressional leaders are doing, while only 27 percent approve of Republican leaders. To improve these ratings and win the midterms, Democrats need to pass and promote their infrastructure and reconciliation bills so Americans feel the economic impact of Democrats in power.
Read on Virginia
For the first time in 12 years, Virginia Republicans swept every statewide office — with Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin leading the ticket, Winsome Sears set to be the state’s first Black and female Lieutenant Governor, and Jason Miyares ousting two-term Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring. And in another twist of the knife for Democrats, Republicans took back the House of Delegates just two years after Democrats won control of the chamber.
Over the last four years, Democrats could count on anti-Trump fervor as the fuel to motivate their base. The McAuliffe campaign was hoping to harness that same energy this year. According to data by AdImpact, almost half of the total number of ads McAuliffe ran since June (13 of 36 ads) linked Trump to Glenn Youngkin.
The Trump issue wasn’t salient because the former president was no longer an imminent threat. The economy and Covid dominated the race, as well as cultural issues related to education. Parents worried about their children’s education as the pandemic raged on, and critical race theory further became a wedge issue that led to Youngkin’s win. According to some, the issue was timing.
“Had we acted in early October I think we could have had a much better result in Virginia and maybe elsewhere, too. And I think the lesson from that is that the public gave us a majority at a very critical time in our country and they want us to use it.”– Senator Tim Kaine.
Perhaps even more instructive are the down-ballot results for legislative races which don’t get as much attention. However, they offer a clearer picture of generic partisan performance and which types of areas have swung the most against the party in the White House.
In Virginia, Republicans picked off seven Democratic seats to capture a 52R-48D majority in the House of Delegates, pending recounts (the state senate was not up for election). Republicans outperformed the 2020 Biden/Trump margins in their districts by a median of 12.4 points, flipping two seats in Virginia Beach and even picking up two Black plurality seats south of Richmond.
In 2009, Republicans’ six-seat pickup in Virginia’s House of Delegates was broadly in line with their House gains in 2010. In 2017, Democratic candidates for the House of Delegates outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin by a median of 6.1 points en route to picking up a shocking 15 seats. Nationally, in 2018, Democratic candidates for House outperformed Clinton’s margin by a median of 5.2 points en route to their 40 seat gain. Granted, there is an entire year for President Biden’s approval rating to rebound or for the political conversation to change. But viewed through a historical lens, Tuesday’s results portend a potential down-ballot calamity for Democrats in 2022.
Despite the loss, turnout in heavily blue areas of Virginia was incredibly robust. Virginia shattered turnout records for a gubernatorial race, with over 3.3 million votes cast (compared to 2.6 million in 2017), including big surges versus four years ago in Democratic strongholds like Fairfax and Arlington counties. But Republican voters turned out even more than Democrats — casting doubt on theories that Democrats simply have a turnout problem to fix.
Through the Economic Lens
The most crucial factor impacting the 2022 midterm election is the economy. According to today’s job report, the U.S. added over 500,000 jobs in October, exceeding expectations as the economy returns closer to the pre pandemic normal. Despite some recovery from the pandemic, more assistance is necessary to boost the economy and meet structural issues. Twenty-seven percent of adults still have difficulty covering usual expenses. Congress can improve the standard of living for everyday Americans to sway voters at the ballot box.
But Americans are feeling the impacts of a strained economy. Only 35 percent of Americans think the economy is doing well. With price increases and supply chain shortages, the effects of the pandemic persist on the economy. Voters are also increasingly pessimistic about the chance for the economy to recover in this next year. This gives Democrats the opportunity to improve the economy and defy the expectations.
Democrats’ economic agenda is popular. The Build Back Better Act has an approval rating of 66 percent, that combined with the infrastructure bill will create jobs and bring meaningful change to working Americans.
The current reconciliation bill may be Democrats’ last chance for a major legislative achievement in this cycle. A president’s party typically loses seats during the midterms, so if Democrats can’t secure a major achievement, they will likely lose the House and possibly the Senate.
Democrats have to demonstrate an ability to govern; if voters believe that Washington is incapable of delivering popular policies, then they will punish the party in power at the polls. Failure to deliver could depress turnout from Democratic base voters. This is what happened in Virginia: many looked to the lack of achievement in Washington as a reason to vote against Democrats or sit out from voting altogether.
Implications for Midterm Message
The Democratic Party faces a trust gap on handling the economy. Voters trust Republicans over Democrats by 12 points on the party best able to manage the economy. House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy suggests Democrats aren’t listening to people and are attempting to enact an unnecessary spending bill. Democrats can respond by delivering their agenda to boost the economy.
Conversely, Democrats are trusted over Republicans to handle Covid, which they can translate into a belief that they can handle and improve the economy. Democrats should speak on their pandemic recovery record and talk more about the economy. The DCCC messaging is: “House Democrats are delivering for the American people during the pandemic.” This message can and should be improved upon.
Democrats can run on their 2018 messaging of improving healthcare. Especially after reaching an agreement to control prescription drugs costs in reconciliation, this is a salient issue that will improve the lives of many Americans, especially seniors, a demographic group that turns out heavily to vote for each election. Focusing on the key issues of the economy, healthcare, and voting rights, while implementing solutions to the systemic problems surrounding these issues would be a great message for Democrats to run on. Democrats also often fear running to the left on the issues, which alienates progressives. But playing it safe and running moderate candidates does not always work. Terry McAulliffe was a middle-of-the-lane candidate, and he lost. Progressive ideas are popular; running on them and delivering tangible results will help Democrats in 2022, not hinder them.
Democrats have struggled with messaging in the past and in the present, but it is time to fix that problem. President Biden was able to beat President Trump in many districts where Democrats lost down-ballot. Much of his messaging was focused on working and middle-class voters, appealing to bread and butter issues that they care about. That success should not be overlooked and the promises made should be kept.
The Next 12 Months
The midterms are still over a year away. Republicans won’t find it straightforward to replicate these state-level results at the federal level next year. Voters in suburban Richmond, Tidewater, or North Jersey may have been open to voting for a local GOP candidate on Tuesday but bristle at the idea of emboldening the “party of Trump” in races for Congress. But at this rate, that might only slightly mitigate Democrats’ losses.
Congressional losses in 2022 would be devastating to the Biden presidency and to the eventual 2024 Democratic presidential candidate. The focus in the months ahead is: how many additional Democratic incumbents decide to retire from potentially vulnerable House districts and do Democrats have what it takes to show voters they can accomplish big and good things for the American people.