On the day after the 2021 off-year elections, Democrats woke up with a bad headache. The victories of 2018 and 2020 seemed like distant memories, and the future looked bleak indeed. But predicting the future from off-year elections is a little like reading the tea leaves—a murky and uncertain endeavor. Nonetheless, here’s what we can glean from what happened.
All politics is no longer local.
Democrats appear to have lost one of the two marquee races for governor, Virginia, and, at this writing, Democrat Phil Murphy holds a very narrow lead in a New Jersey governor race that was supposed to be a shoo-in. Neither outcome was expected and both races became nationalized. In Virginia, which has been trending blue for some time now, Democrat Terry McAuliffe started out with a healthy lead. The race quickly became nationalized as “Virginia is for vaccines” McAuliffe tried to tie Republican Glenn Youngkin to the far-right, anti-vaccine-mandate crowd of the Republican Party and to Donald Trump—who lost Virginia by 10 points in 2020. Much of the race turned into a proxy fight between Biden and Trump, with McAuliffe trying to convince voters that Youngkin was just like the former president.
Founding Director - Center for Effective Public Management
Senior Fellow - Governance Studies
McAuliffe’s slide in the polls coincided with President Biden’s very bad summer and his own slide in the polls. It occurred as Democrats were tearing each other apart over two bills that they could not seem to pass, and that Biden could not seem to broker. The race became so nationalized that, on Election Day, Democrats in Congress were trying to avoid blame for not getting a deal done and thus sinking McAuliffe.
The lesson here? The famous Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once said, “All politics is local.” Not anymore.
The culture wars are alive and well.
Youngkin ran a clever campaign, sounding Trump-like but keeping Trump (who endorsed him) out of the state. In the end, Youngkin managed to take a comment McAuliffe made in a debate and turn the race into a referendum on whether or not parents should have a say over what educators teach in schools. In the course of this, he vowed to forbid the teaching of “critical race theory” in Virginia schools—even though it is not taught in Virginia and there were no plans to do so. However, by Election Day, 24% of voters said education was the most important issue facing Virginia, and critical race theory became a new racist “dog whistle” in American politics—roiling school boards all over the country where it isn’t taught and has no plans to be taught. Critical race theory is this year’s transgender bathrooms controversy. It isn’t very real, but it captures a deep divide in culture and values.
The lesson here? Politicians beware: When one culture war dies, another is right behind it.
Donald Trump is still a player, but how much of a player depends on where.
The elections showed somewhat mixed results for those trying to assess how much of a player Trump is likely to be in the future. In Virginia, Youngkin skillfully kept Trump at arm’s length. Trump never came to the state, and on the eve of the election, he conducted a private tele-rally that was closed to the press and did not get much attention. The result? Youngkin outperformed Trump in the northern Virginia suburbs that count for such a large portion of the Virginia vote.
But in one of the three congressional special elections, the open seat in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, Republican candidate Mike Carey was endorsed by Trump in the primary and in the general. Unlike Youngkin, Carey was not shy about his affiliation with Trump. The 15th is a very Republican district that went for Trump by 14 points in 2020. The Republican margins of victory in that seat have run from 12.9% in 2010 to 26.8% in 2020—with some in between years as high as 32%.
So, while no one expected her to win, a well-financed Democrat, Allison Russo, won the Democratic nomination and ran a respectable race. One measure of the Trump candidate’s strength would be how he performed against a well-financed and respectable Democrat. To that end, Carey won the district yesterday by a healthy margin—17%. It seems as though Trump did not hurt him at all.
The lesson here? In Trump country, Trump is still king. In non-Trump country, going “Trump light” doesn’t hurt.
Crime is a big issue, and “defund the police” a loser.
George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman in the summer of 2020 started a national debate over policing reform. The debate was legitimate and long overdue but, along the way, it garnered the unfortunate name “defund the police.” In this year’s election, a ballot initiative in Minneapolis that encompassed some important elements of police reform lost by a substantial margin—44% voted yes and 56% voted no. The mayoral candidate who promoted the ballot initiative most aggressively also lost.
Crime emerged as an issue in many of the other mayoral races around the country. And while most Democratic candidates stopped using the toxic phrase, they didn’t have to—the Republicans used it for them. In New York City, former police chief Eric Adams, a Democrat, won his race for mayor; during his campaign, he leaned on a particular phrase that ended up resonating: “The prerequisite for prosperity is public safety.”
The Lesson here? Drop “defund the police.”
Socialism is not appealing to the American voter.
Ever since Bernie Sanders burst upon the national scene, the word socialism, long forbidden by Democratic politicians, crept back into political dialogue. In Buffalo, New York, the incumbent Mayor Byron Brown found himself in a primary fight for the Democratic nomination with a self-avowed socialist, India Walton; among her policy positions, Walton planned to cut $7.5 million out of the police department by removing police from mental health calls and from minor traffic enforcement duties. Brown refused to engage with Walton during the primary and lost the Democratic nomination. But he then went on to wage an aggressive write-in campaign. Although write-in campaigns are notoriously difficult to pull off, Brown seems to have prevailed, declaring victory with about 59% of the vote going toward write-ins and 41% for Walton (as of this writing).
With the sole exception of Vermont and a few university towns across the United States, socialism is a losing political message. For example, it cost Joe Biden Cuban and Venezuelan votes in Florida in 2020, since Americans from those socialist countries regard the term as synonymous with massive economic failure.
The lesson here? Drop socialism from the Democratic Party for once and for all.
It used to be said that what Democrats did best was to form a “circular firing squad.” It seems that those days are back. Fresh off a presidential victory, the party fell into endless wrangling over two bills that should have passed months ago. From Capitol Hill to the local levels, the party seems to have forgotten that the country elected Joe Biden, the centrist who could get things done, not Bernie Sanders. In their first year in power, Democrats have paid dearly for that mistake.