The US off-year elections, which take place a year after presidential elections, are often easy to gloss over. Despite being confined to a handful of state-level races including for governorships and state legislatures, they offer the first glance at the nation’s political sentiment a year into each presidency. For Joe Biden, it was not good news.
Virginia’s change of heart
The most consequential race of this cycle was the gubernatorial election in Virginia – which has trended increasingly Democratic at all levels of government since Obama swept the Old Dominion state in 2008. Democrats’ support has drained from the foothills of Appalachia and been resurrected in the sprawling suburbs of northeastern Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay. Suburbanites, women, ethnic minorities, and college-educated voters have gradually migrated away from the Republicans in recent years. This exodus was catalysed by the Trump presidency, but have these voters begun to return?
Glenn Youngkin is the first Republican elected governor of Virginia in over a decade. His victory can be viewed as nothing but a repudiation of the Biden presidency and the direction of the Democratic Party in general. The lynchpin to his campaign messaging was strategically crafted to pull on the emotional concerns of suburban parents – that of the academic curriculum. Youngkin’s opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, made the bold comment that the central government ought to be telling the schools in individual states what they should be teaching students. Youngkin was successfully able to associate this statement with the divisive (within conservative circles) critical race theory. This has been referred to as ‘cult indoctrination’ by some commentators, and was used as a stick to beat the Democrats within Virginia. At a campaign event, Youngkin asserted “we won’t teach our children to view everything through the lens of race. On day one I will ban critical race theory.” This pivot away from the economic issues which Democrats were seeking to run (including infrastructure, and post-Covid-19 recovery), and towards cultural issues, forced McAuliffe to address this issue, associating himself with the Republican’s messaging day by day.
The so-called ‘culture wars’ will play a part in the Republican narrative moving forward – unlike economic arguments which appeal to the average voter’s head, they resonate with the heart. Trump was able to fuse the two together into a powerful electoral force. Trump, however, was not on any ballot in the US last Tuesday – yet his absence begs a much larger question. Youngkin, though endorsed, never campaigned with Trump, and tried to shunt the former president from the debate. Democrats attempted to label Youngkin as ‘Trumpkin’ in an effort to cast the Republican as his puppet. In this case what played more of a part in the Republican victory – Trump (and enthusiasm for a candidate who was labelled as an acolyte), or his absence?
Trouble in Democrats’ back garden
In New Jersey, this issue may be starker. Governor Phil Murphy was re-elected (the first Democratic governor to win a second term since the 1970s) with just shy of 51% of the vote. His opponent in the Garden State, Jack Ciattarelli was not endorsed by Trump, nor did he hail from that wing of the party – yet he defied all the polling data. Ciattarelli was predicted to be beaten convincingly but was only beaten by around 2%. For a state which Biden carried in 2020 by 16%, this result is a startling sign for Democrats in their own backyard.
The Republican campaign in the Garden State followed a similar playbook to Virginia – keeping Trump far from the trail, focusing on cultural wedge issues and lambasting the Democratic incumbents for failure on their record. Murphy’s narrow win can also be attributed to the issue of mask mandates which he enforced earlier this year. In conservative-leaning Ocean County, record turnout was seen from those who were angry at these mandates. In both Virginia and New Jersey, cultural issues drew people to the polls. The heart led them to vote Republican.
In both states, Republicans gained seats in both their respective lower and upper houses, with a cross-country truck driver with no traditional political aptitude defeating one of New Jersey’s most powerful lawmakers. The campaign messages at the top of each state’s ballot trickled down and helped many Republicans over the line.
Consolidating the urban blue wall
In reliably blue New York City, Eric Adams defeated eccentric Republican Curtis Sliwa, with a near-identical Democratic vote share as was seen in the last mayoral election here. Adams, a former police officer, may offer a blueprint for how Democrats move to tackle cultural issues. He struck a balance between toughness on crime and racial injustice in policing the city.
Votes on loan?
The consistency of New York’s election signifies an unchanged level of Democratic support from college-educated, liberal urbanites and minority voters. Virginia and New Jersey indicate worrisome signs that the support of suburban women (a vital cog in their coalition which they viewed as vital between 2017 and 2021) was only loaned in 2020 as a means to dispose of Trump. It seems as though without Trump, Biden and the Democrats are in a perilous position, with no rallying cry. They are in the midst of an identity crisis in which voters cannot determine what they stand for. Meanwhile, they are getting beaten with cultural arguments put forward by the Republicans, which continue to win the hearts of voters at each election. For Democrats, without the figure of Trump to galvanise their support they will actually need to devise an electoral strategy.