Meanwhile, even in seemingly performative ways, Republicans have settled on a blueprint for 2022. Having underestimated the significance of education as an issue in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Democrats were still reading the exit polls when House Republicans, moving to nationalize an issue that was traditionally a strong suit for Democrats, introduced a “parental bill of rights” in the House. The National Republican Congressional Committee announced within hours of the election that it was expanding its map, adding 13 more Democratic-held House seats to its offensive targets in the midterms.
“Democrats are losing the messaging war,” said Kelly Dietrich, a former Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains candidates across the country. “We talked about this in ‘20. We promised to solve problems, and rather than talk and brag and point out the fact that government is working the way it should — making sausage is messy — we’re bogged down in process, and in the meantime, the other side is capitalizing on issues that really matter to the day-to-day lives of voters.”
He said, “It’s got to get fixed in like eight to 10 months, and the prospects for ’22, it’s a year away, I don’t know … Honestly, I don’t know. We need some radical change within the Democratic ecosphere.”
None of this is new. Following Democrats’ losses in Virginia and New Jersey in the gubernatorial elections in 2009, Barack Obama’s White House downplayed the significance of the off-year contests, while prominent Democrats on the sidelines feverishly tried to make sense of why independents defected from the party, casting it as a “wake-up call.” It didn’t make a difference. The party sleep-walked all the way into the midterms the following year, when Democrats lost more than 60 House seats in what Obama described as a “shellacking.”
The landscape for Democrats today is even bleaker. Not only do Democrats hold a slimmer majority in Congress, but Biden’s low-40s approval rating — a metric closely correlated with a party’s performance in midterm elections — is much worse than Obama’s was at this point in his presidency.
The difficulty conducting a postmortem after an election like last week’s is that the losses were so widespread that it’s hard to pin defeat on any one thing. Democrats lost the culture wars, but they also got pinned down on the economy. They were drubbed in rural areas and with non-college educated whites, but they also lost independents in the suburbs. And two issues that worked so well for Democrats last year — the coronavirus and Donald Trump — no longer resonated as much with voters.
In the aftermath of the election, there was broad recognition that McAuliffe made specific missteps that a candidate in 2022 could avoid, like saying during a debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” And there were certain things, like supply chain disruptions, rising gas prices and the electorate’s dim mood, that Democrats in Virginia could do nothing about.
But beyond that, Democrats were reading Virginia like a Rorschach test. Progressive Democrats saw the election as a rebuke of the corporate wing of the party and Clintonesque Democrats like McAuliffe. Centrists saw it as a revolt against the “wokeism” of the left. For rural Democrats, the election confirmed that Democrats need to focus more on voters outside of cities. For urban Democrats, it confirmed the need for Congress to pass legislation that might appeal to the party’s base.