America’s off-year election brings surprises and some scary news for Biden and Democrats
As South Africa began announcing the results of its local elections, America held a ballot of its own on Tuesday. While the presidency and many other offices were not up for grabs, several important races were run and the results will not be pleasing to Democrats, even where they seem to have won in the end.
Not surprisingly, South Africans are fretting, rejoicing or playing funeral dirges about the outcome of the local government elections. At the same time, the Japanese have reaffirmed, yet again, the near permanent control of their polity in the hands of the Liberal Democratic Party. And, of course, American voters have been roiling their own political waters with the results in several key state-level elections.
This off-year election in the US does not have the obvious drama of a presidential election, but it can have important potential implications for the 2024 election.
In the race for governor in the state of Virginia, former governor Terry McAuliffe was initially heavily favoured to win when the campaign began, given the growing numbers of Democratic Party supporters in Virginia’s suburbs near Washington, DC, and the solid Democratic majorities in the state’s major cities. Nevertheless, it was a very close race in which McAuliffe’s challenger, Glenn Youngkin, a political neophyte, nosed ahead in the end.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, an even more solidly Democratic state where incumbent governor Phil Murphy was slated to be able to win easily, at the time of this writing the two candidates remain locked in a neck-and-neck race between Murphy and his challenger, Republican former state legislator Jack Ciattarelli.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were still significant numbers of votes to be tabulated from heavily Democratic counties, so Murphy may still pull an electoral rabbit from the ballot box.
Because these two governors’ races are scheduled to take place in the year following a presidential race, they usually get a degree of national attention as harbingers of things to come in the next midterm election when the entire membership of the House of Representatives is subject to election, along with a third of the Senate, and numerous other governors and state legislators. This year, given the sharp political divides in America, these two races — Virginia and New Jersey — appear to have taken on more importance than usual for politics and political strategists.
Beyond these two races, among other voting, there were races for mayors of, among others, New York City, Buffalo, Boston, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, and an initiative in Minneapolis to “defund the police” and establish a department of public safety — in response to the events surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of the city’s police.
In many of the cities with mayoral races, Democratic (or technically non-partisan but clearly Democratic) candidates have won. In Buffalo, an avowed democratic socialist candidate lost to a more mainstream Democratic candidate who, unusually, appears to have been successful via a mass write-in ballot campaign.
And in Minneapolis, the “defund the cops” referendum was shellacked by the voting in favour of keeping a more traditional police department.
Meanwhile, control of the Virginia House of Delegates, with all 100 seats up for election, in a chamber previously split 55 to 45 to the advantage of Democrats, control remains up for grabs, as votes in several tightly contested legislative districts are still being counted.
Underlying the results, and even with those remaining votes yet to be counted, larger political trends and currents can clearly be discerned. First, the results demonstrate a real weakness of the Biden presidency in its ability to positively influence other political fortunes. Biden’s sagging popularity seems to stem largely from the seemingly incessant congressional wrangling over the “Build Back Better” pair of infrastructure bills still undecided by Congress, a rapid rise in petrol prices, a crime spike and a popular perception that the evacuation from Kabul was a botched operation (even if virtually no rational person is arguing for a reinsertion of US forces in that sorry landscape).
As a result, whereas Joe Biden as presidential candidate had stormed through states like Virginia and New Jersey, rolling up substantial majorities in 2020, his party’s gubernatorial candidates this time around have had a much rougher road. It does seem likely that Phil Murphy will, in the end, have a real, albeit diminished majority to his credit, once all the votes are counted.
But both Democratic candidates — but most especially Terry McAuliffe — appear to have forgotten or essentially forsworn attention to one of the most elemental truths in American politics: “All politics is local.” McAuliffe attempted to “nationalise” his campaign, calling in surrogates like former president Barack Obama, incumbent Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to campaign for him.
Moreover, McAuliffe tried to graft Donald Trump’s worst actual and rhetorical excesses directly on to his opponent’s real persona beneath that outwardly reasonable surface skin. Then McAuliffe effectively ignored (or perhaps exacerbated) a rising groundswell of anger among some voters over continuing Covid restrictions related to children’s education, increased community control of public school curricula, including the assignment of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, to some high school students, and, inevitably, that ever convenient whipping boy, critical race theory.
Further, McAuliffe did not help himself much when he seemed to be telling parents to back off — that parents didn’t (and implying they really shouldn’t) have a direct role in managing educational activities in their children’s schools. In the end, McAuliffe’s candidacy withered on the vine. (Murphy’s campaign, meanwhile, was stung by rising anger over the state’s high taxes, even if he also had received credit for its effective responses to Covid and the subsequent economic recovery there that has increasingly kicked in.)
Back in Virginia, demonstrating an unusual degree of political savvy and an ability to find and ride community concerns unlikely in a political neophyte (Glenn Youngkin was previously a financial services savant with no prior political, elected office), Youngkin found a course that embraced many of Donald Trump’s positions, even as he largely eschewed mentioning the ex-president’s name, and held Trump-the-person at extreme arm’s length.
He even shrugged off entreaties by Trump that the latter could hold rallies on behalf of Youngkin. True to form, Trump did hold an online rally that served as a call for voters to back the candidate as a Trump-lite one, perfectly designed for Virginia’s increasingly blue state status. Oh, and to remind supporters that the Trumpeter would be back.
Crucial in all this, and something to be studied, dissected, analysed and examined molecule by molecule, is Youngkin’s victory as a roadmap for successful Republican candidacies in the midterm election next year, and, then, more theoretically, for the presidential election year of 2024 as well — in both purple and even blue states.
Holding on to the Republican core and that fanatical Trump MAGA base, the Youngkin campaign was also designed to win back a significant share of suburban independents who had been disgusted by Trump and were thus important for the Biden win in 2020. The idea was to successfully appeal to those who conceivably could be re-attracted to Republican candidates, just as long as such candidates did not demonstrate that unbridled rage, anger, bottomless grievance, smarminess, lies, prevarications, insults and invective that had been the hallmark of the Trump campaigns.
Going forward to 2022, Democrats now have their work cut out for themselves. They must begin posting actual legislative wins that translate clearly to the benefit of individual voters. They must figure out how to pull that supposed mask of moderation off Republican candidates in order to show the inner Trump of many of them. And they must demonstrate tangibly that the pandemic is finally receding; that immigration issues can be managed, and that the economy can truly reignite and climate issues can begin to turn a corner — and all of this before mid-year 2022.
Oh, and while they are at it, the Chinese-American frenemies competition can be adroitly managed, and Iran, North Korea and other hotspots will not spiral out of control for America. Taken together, this is quite a homework list.
A final irony for this Virginia governor’s race is that back in 1969, another governor’s election had led to another outsider, Linwood Holton, winning it. Holton was the first Republican to win statewide office in the 20th century, breaking the lock-hold Senator Harry Byrd’s staunchly segregationist and racist political machine had held over Virginia politics for half a century.
Holton, running as a reformist candidate, successfully brought together a coalition of reform-minded Democrats, Republicans and black voters (who were joining political life in increasing numbers by virtue of the enforcement of 1965’s national Voting Rights Act). In office, among other major moves, Holton enforced school integration throughout the state in its public accommodations and public schools, and he and his wife led by example, sending their children to a mainly minority public school in the state capital of Richmond dictated by the district where their residence was located.
In their obituary the other day, the Washington Post said of Holton, “He persuaded the legislature to raise the income tax and the gasoline tax, and he used the money for environmental protection, higher education and transportation projects. But he called his work on race relations ‘the greatest source of satisfaction and pride for me.’
“In his inaugural address from the steps of the Capitol of the old Confederacy, Mr. Holton quoted Abraham Lincoln in calling for an open society that operates ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all.’ ”
Holton died at the age of 98, less than a week before this most recent election. One has to wonder what Holton would have said of a Trump-lite candidate like Glenn Youngkin, let alone the Trumpster himself. DM