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Election Setbacks in Virginia and New Jersey Have Capitol Hill Democrats in Despair

Lawmakers are pressing forward with two massive bills that constitute Biden’s agenda, but Tuesday night’s results have laid the party’s midterm weaknesses bare.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Dick Durbin speak to reporters.
Pete Marovich/Getty Images
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (right) and Senator Dick Durbin

Almost exactly a year after a Democratic president swept into office, obtaining a decisive victory in Virginia, a Democratic candidate lost the race to become governor of the purple state. National Democrats worried that this loss could be a harbinger of impending doom in the midterm elections the following year and questioned what this would mean for the new president’s ambitious legislative agenda.

The year was 2009, and Republican Bob McDonnell’s win did presage a veritable shellacking for Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections. More than a decade later, it appears that history has rhymed, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe losing to Republican Glenn Youngkin just a year after President Joe Biden swept the state in 2020.

Plenty of fingers are already being pointed as to who is to blame for McAuliffe’s loss. Just across the Potomac from the commonwealth, many Democrats in Congress argued that their inability to pass major legislation hampered his campaign. This line of reasoning was echoed on Wednesday by Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner—both former governors themselves.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy won reelection by an extremely narrow margin, raising similar alarms for Democrats concerned about holding onto several swing districts in the state.

Congressional Democrats have yet to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act, a massive social spending bill that has been whittled down to roughly $1.75 trillion. Although the bipartisan bill passed in the Senate in August, House progressives have said they would not vote for it without also voting on the social spending bill, concerned that moderates would not support the latter bill once the former was passed. But progressives have also made concessions, agreeing to support a far smaller bill than the initial $3.5 trillion proposal that eliminated some of their top provisions and pay-fors.

Kaine argued that passing these two bills prior to the election would have given McAuliffe a needed boost. “Instead, Democrats wanted to be purists about whatever their own particular goals were—left, right, and center—and hold out, and dither and delay. And so that hurt Terry in a close race,” Kaine said. “I’m just saying, I hope my colleagues absorb this notion that when you’re the majority, the D in Democrat should stand for doer, not delay, dithering, do nothing, division.

Warner noted that turnout was high but argued that it was impossible to win in Virginia without suburban voters, particularly given Democrats’ severe weaknesses with rural voters. He was one of the senators who negotiated the bipartisan bill, and said that passing it would have helped McAuliffe with those voters.

“I’ve been doing this, I’ve been saying for literally two months: We needed to show here in Washington that we could govern. And in a pragmatic way, the first step of that would have been getting the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the president’s desk,” Warner said.

Representative Stephanie Murphy, a Blue Dog Democrat who has been one of bipartisan bill’s biggest champions in the House, sidestepped a question from reporters on whether progressives could be faulted for McAuliffe’s loss. “This is not a moment for blaming. This is a moment for action, and it is a moment to try to get something done for the American people,” Murphy said.

However, these are bills that McAuliffe, running for statewide office, had no hand in crafting. Much of his campaign was laser-focused on an attempt to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, whom the Republican candidate neither fully embraced nor outright rejected. Youngkin appealed to Trump voters with his calls for election integrity and his condemnation of “critical race theory,” a right-wing cause célèbre. But beyond the red-meat issues for conservatives, he also focused on parents’ frustrations with school closures and fatigue with the coronavirus pandemic. Calling him “Donald Trump in khakis,” as McAuliffe often did, did not sufficiently transform Youngkin into Trump in the eyes of voters he most needed to convince.

There are several factors that account for McAuliffe’s loss, including structural disadvantages: A candidate of the same party as the freshly elected president has only won the Virginia governorship once since 1977, when McAuliffe was elected in 2013. And historically speaking, the party in power suffers losses in the subsequent midterm elections, which is already a concern for moderate Democratic representatives who recently flipped red seats. Moreover, Biden is currently at a nadir in his popularity, and Trump is no longer at the top of the ticket—two details that could explain vote-switching among Virginians whose distaste for Trump didn’t extend to Youngkin.

“We can’t just run on Trump. You’ve got to run on accomplishments,” Kaine said in response to a question from The New Republic, although he argued that McAuliffe had not hung his entire campaign on the former president. (“Look at his web page on issues compared to his opponent’s. He ran on very detailed plans,” Kaine said.)

Republicans also outperformed Trump in southern New Jersey, where the state Senate president was trailing behind a little-known Republican candidate as of Wednesday morning. This indicates that Democrats can’t simply rely on the former president as an albatross that will weigh down all GOP candidates. This was also the case in the 2020 elections, when Republicans gained ground in the House even as Trump lost the presidency decisively.

“The energy is with the outs in midterm elections. That’s the reality of it. The charged-up are the ones that show, and it’s about turnout,” said Representative Richard Neal on Wednesday, when asked whether congressional inaction had any bearing on the results of the election.

Democrats exceeded their 2017 turnout in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, so their problem was not that their voters were unmotivated but that Republicans had also turned out in high numbers. (McAuliffe received nearly 200,000 more votes than his predecessor, Ralph Northam, won in 2017; he outperformed his previous numbers in 2013 by over half a million votes.)

“It only reinforces what we already knew: People need something to vote for, not against. Running on an anti-Trump message when we’re in the majority doesn’t make sense,” a Democratic aide from New Jersey told The New Republic. This aide also said that Democrats needed to do more to connect with Black and Latino voters.

Democrats already have exceedingly narrow majorities in the House and Senate. If the results in Virginia and New Jersey are harbingers of future losses in the midterms, this may encourage Democrats to move quickly now on their legislation. “I think this will motivate Congress to get something done now,” the aide from New Jersey said.

“Virginia and New Jersey might have been different had we delivered this bill three weeks ago. So I think we need to get this done and start explaining it to people,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters on Wednesday. (The Build Back Better Act was not ready three weeks ago, nor is it even in its final form today; it is also still unclear whether it will be able to garner all 50 Democratic votes in the Senate.)

A senior Democratic aide told The New Republic that while the elections will not affect Democrats’ plans, they highlight the need for quick accomplishments. “The results have nothing to do with the agenda here but they certainly crystallize the need for results, and fast,” the aide said. When asked Wednesday if the results the previous evening changed Democrats’ calculations about passing both bills, Speaker Nancy Pelosi simply said: “No.”

Representative Don Beyer, who represents a district in northern Virginia, said in a statement on Wednesday that “so far voters have only seen the process, not the benefits.”

“We must legislate and keep our promises. We also must work harder to communicate effectively about the ways this legislation and the administration’s policies will help address voters’ economic concerns,” Beyer said. (In an interview with The New Republic on Monday, Beyer said Democrats would have to “shake it off” if McAuliffe lost the election.)

Pelosi has insisted that there will be votes on both bills this week, but the finalized text of the social spending bill has yet to be released. House Democrats huddled for a caucus meeting on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to establish their next steps, and the Rules Committee met later on Wednesday to go over the updated text.

However, this will likely not be the final legislation because it is almost certain to be amended in the Senate. Provisions on paid family and medical leave and immigration reform may be excised from the bill in the Senate. And so the fight continues, with the specter of Virginia and New Jersey haunting Democratic efforts to enact their agenda.