I have many emotions about this week’s election results in Virginia and New Jersey.
Glenn Youngkin’s win over Terry McAulliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial race and the apparent razor-thin re-election of Phil Murphy in New Jersey (as of this writing, there was no declared victor in the Garden State) hold ominous signs for Democrats. Just one year ago, Biden won Virginia by 10 points and New Jersey by 16! While we should not give too much credence to statewide contests held a full year before the next Congressional races, I could not help but a feel a bit of “deja-vu all over again” as we contemplate another year of a paralyzed legislature and the possibility of a future run by Donald Trump and his wannabes.
I shiver to think about what the next few years may hold as this week’s elections bring two things into blunt focus. First, the good will engendered by having a “stable administration” replace the self-described “stable genius” has evaporated. Democratic in-fighting and continued Republican intransigence have led to largely unmet promises in Biden’s agenda. The American people, exhausted by the continuing drumbeat of chaos in Donald Trump’s White House have begun to ask whether the do-nothing Democratic caucus that cannot even agree on their own President’s agenda is any better suited to tackle those day-to-day, bread and butter issues that Americans care so much about.
The vitriol is no longer there—and everyone seems glad about that—but action is also absent. And while we are relieved that the anger is gone, we remain impatient about fumbling fits and starts in leading the country into a more forward-looking future. Polls indicate that only 29% of the country thinks America is headed in the right direction.
The second disquieting note is how both Glenn Youngkin and Jack Ciattarelli portrayed themselves as “Trump light”—losing the bombast, while still espousing policy prescriptions that the Republican base holds dear. Avoiding important quality-of-life issues like gun violence, police reform, a woman’s right to choose, economic inequality and the climate crisis remains central to these candidates’ campaigns. If the former President learns from this election and stays quiet and behind the scenes, Republican candidates in swing districts could prevail. Progressive approaches to these endemic challenges are in jeopardy. In this regard, it can be argued that an even more troubling election result for Democrats in Virginia was the apparent loss of control of the House of Delegates to the Republicans.
The short-term hope for Democrats lies in the expectation that Donald Trump will revert to his past pattern and inject himself into the mix as an explosive wild card, thereby sabotaging his party’s chances in the mid-terms and in 2024, as he did in the two Senate runoffs in Georgia.
But, Democrats beware: this is wishful thinking and an unsustainable quick fix at best. In the long view, Democrats must recognize their vulnerability to candidates like Youngkin and Ciattarelli, get out of their own way and pass legislation that is supported by majorities of the voting public (i.e., the infrastructure bill, the build back better bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights bill and other legislation) and offer a compelling message that begins with actually listening to what the people want and then responding with creative solutions to the vexing problems that confront our nation.