How Virginia could be the wakeup call the Democrats need

By Alex Sicilia

Election season never truly ends in America. Since November 2020 we have seen the Senate runoffs of Georgia, the New York mayoral primary, and, of course, the Virginia gubernatorial election, to name but some of the hotly contested races. American elected officials will now be gearing up to focus on the midterms as primaries across the states are set into motion. We can see this with, for example, the declaration of re-election by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. It is around this time now, you would say, Joe Biden no longer has time to govern freely: every action the administration takes will be in service to the midterms.

The midterms are always staged as a referendum on the current president, and Democrats face an uphill battle as they try to keep control of Congress. With such a thin majority in both chambers it seems highly unlikely that the Democrats will maintain even partial control as they ride with an increasingly unpopular president.

Democrats themselves are not faring too well either. In 2018 it took the Democrats having an almost 9 point lead to get a 17 seat majority. Cut that down to a 3 point lead and we have 2020 and a 5 seat majority. With the Democrats nearing a dead heat, and the Republicans’ rural advantage, the House is looking red. With the House in jeopardy the Senate does not look favourable either, though it is not impossible for the Democrats to lose the House but keep the Senate. 

Why set Virginia as the line in the sand, the point where Democrats should change tack? Virginia has been charting a course from red state to purple to blue and has returned consistent results for the Democrats since 2006. The last time a Republican was elected governor in Virginia was 2009, under then still popular President Barack Obama. Glenn Youngkin has been elected the new governor of Virginia, a state Biden won by 10 points. It’s a triumphant victory for Republicans as they begin their path to 2022.

There are clearly a myriad of reasons why Youngkin beat his Democratic counterpart Terry McAuliffe. The first is Biden’s tanking polling numbers since June, which toppled with the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan followed by another wave of COVID-19 cases. Biden has not recovered since and on the day of the Virginia election he had a -8% net approval rating – only former President Donald Trump had a worse net approval at the same point in his presidency. Biden being so unpopular is enough to energise Republicans who want to vote against the Democrats while simultaneously disengaging Democratic voters and shifting independents rightward.

McAuliffe’s campaign focused on Trump and the pandemic, two topics which served the Democrats well in 2020 but have not landed with the same grace one year on. As the pandemic worsened in Virginia, and with Biden’s lessening COVID approval, it was difficult for McAuliffe to get his campaign off the ground, stalling momentum and giving Youngkin some much needed breathing room for the first time campaigner.

McAuliffe’s other side of the coin was Trump. Democrats across the country seem to believe tying Republicans to the former president is enough to energise their base and rally independents around the flag of democracy. A successful portrayal might be enough to bring out working class whites to vote Democrat, or even the much coveted suburban woman vote. The idea behind this seems to share much with the Trump/GOP strategy of 2020 – vote Biden, get Bernie. Remembering the convention speech made by Trump on the White House south lawn, it seemed as if the writers thought they would be facing Sanders in 2020 and never got the memo it was Biden. Democrats seem to be falling into the same trap – vote Republican, get Trump. It’s much harder to convince people when Trump’s name is not on the ticket.

With Youngkin, Trump endorsed him after his successful primary but never campaigned with him in Virginia. Trump stayed relatively quiet throughout the campaign, making a closing endorsement to his base early November. Youngkin appears to have found a possible middle ground between being a Trumpist and a traditional Republican that favoured him in a blue state.

Tumbling forward into the midterms with this strategy is not going to energise the Democrats’ base. Many think the Democrats are not doing enough on the federal level to protect democracy. As Republicans across the swing states enact state laws which restrict voting rights, it will take more than simply saying “we are not them” to keep power. On top of this redistricting will have concluded by the midterms and Republicans control the redistricting of more seats than Democrats. If Republicans can use this once-in-a-decade opportunity to net just five seats in the House then Biden could be saying goodbye to his policy agenda.

What can the Democrats do? What would give them a fighting chance in 2022? The key player here is Biden: 2022 is Biden’s referendum. If he is unpopular, his party is near certain to lose. Making him more popular does not mean success but the odds are a damn sight better. Making a president more popular is no easy feat, and made more complicated by the pandemic.

Biden’s approach to the pandemic has been focused on enforcing rules on federal employees and hoping that many states will follow course. Biden’s vaccine mandate only extends to those employed by the government and though he has the power to do so he is not ordering private employers to do the same, under the guise that it would be an overreach of the federal government. In an expected twist Republicans have used these orders by the president to print him as anti-freedom, anti-American, and authoritarian. In short, Democrats need to hope the pandemic will be kind to them in the lead-up to 2022: low case numbers might give a foundation for a higher approval rating.

The hope of an improved pandemic, however, might not be enough to help Biden. He campaigned on a very popular platform, and as Democrats moved left in the lead-up to 2020 they have enjoyed encompassing increasingly popular policy positions into their agenda. Congress becomes the sticking point. It does not matter how popular a policy is among the American people: if five moderate or progressive Democrats disagree in the House it is dead in the water. Move to the Senate and the wrath of Sen. Joe Manchin or Sen. Krysten Sinema forces the meat of many bills to stay at the door.

With the Vice-Presidential majority in the Senate, appeasing Sinema or Manchin risks losing more progressive Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders. It is a balancing act that Biden has been playing with his infrastructure bill since his first days in office – a bill which has only just managed to jump its last hurdle to the President’s desk on November 5th, losing the votes of six progressive Democrats in the House whilst gaining thirteen Republicans.

Biden might be able to use Virginia to scare Democrats into line. With the two extremes of the Senate Democrats not up for re-election this cycle, he can try and persuade both to get along and get his agenda through before they lose control. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill was the first step, pushing this success might show the American people that Biden was correct when he said he could work on a bipartisan agenda. He might use this success to springboard more of his agenda forward, give back to the base, and keep the party in line.

None of this is guaranteed to improve Biden in the eyes of the American people. As it stands however, the Democrats are in hot water and losing Virginia might be what the Democrats need to whip their party into line. It shows that currently they are not heading in the right direction and things need to change if they wish to buck the trends of history and keep Biden afloat heading into 2024.

Alex Sicilia is a PhD student studying Theoretical Astrophysics who has been following US electoral politics closely since 2014.

Image: U.S Congress. Author: Superinformative, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts