Lessons Virginia Democrats can take from their 2021 losses

December 13, 2021 12:02 am

Voters in Chesterfield County, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

It took them nearly a decade of defeat to wise up, but Virginia’s Republicans finally learned lessons that had been right in front of them for years.

Now, it’s time for Democrats to perform a postmortem on their losses last month and attempt the same process.

After convincing GOP losses from 2017 through Joe Biden’s 10-point takedown of the widely disliked Donald Trump in 2020, Virginia Republicans realized they had to do things differently.

The party revamped its nomination process in a way that it would not yield the sort of polarizing Trump clones such as Corey Stewart who had flopped disastrously in 2018 in moderate Virginia.

It found an untested but fresh and likable messenger with a large enough personal fortune that the Democrats couldn’t bury him for lack of funds. And it loaded him up for the general election with plenty of talking points about issues that ring as true with people in Galax and Wise as they do in Reston and Chesapeake.

And on the first Tuesday of November, the GOP was able to harness a powerful tide of general disaffection with Democrats who run both Richmond and D.C. and sweep all three statewide offices and flip the Democrats’ short-lived House of Delegates majority into a two-seat Republican majority.

The numbers themselves tell part of the story of where the Democrats fell short.

Some argue that there was a poor turnout by Democratic voters, but raw vote totals tell a different story. Contrary to early presumptions, this was not another somnolent off-year election following last year’s tumultuous, bitter and exhausting presidential race.

The 1,600,116 votes former Gov. Terry McAuliffe received last month are the most any Democrat has ever received in a Virginia gubernatorial race – almost 191,000 more than Ralph Northam’s previous record set just four years earlier. It was a remarkable Democratic showing in the heaviest voter turnout for any governor’s election in Virginia history.

It’s just that the Republicans and their shiny, new governor-elect, Glenn Youngkin, did even better – exactly 63,480 votes, or 2 percentage points, better – according to State Department of Elections totals.

But how?

Hadn’t Virginia proved beyond a doubt in every statewide election from 2012 on that it had turned a deep and indelible azure? Most national media political oracles were saying it, so it had to be true, no?

Things really bottomed out for the GOP in Virginia starting in 2016, when Trump began trying to turn the party into his own worshipful cult. Every Republican tied to Trump – and, as Ed Gillespie will attest from his 2017 drubbing at Northam’s hands, even some who weren’t – got punished at the ballot box in Virginia during the years when Trump was either in the White House or on the ballot.

There’s a hazard in winning easy: you take things for granted and don’t re-examine old assumptions or rethink tired formulas that worked in the past. And that, in a nutshell, is what happened this year: McAuliffe and the Democrats re-ran old campaigns while the GOP was forced to look an ugly reality in the face and adapt.

The old popular assumption was that the Great Blue Suburban Wall was an unassailable Democratic redoubt teeming with voters always hostile to the GOP and that the vast rural areas that vote Republican lacked the numbers or the motivation to outvote the suburbs.

Terry McAuliffe campaigns for governor in Richmond with Gov. Ralph Northam and Mayor Levar Stoney. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

McAuliffe still won the suburbs last month. But Youngkin, by keeping a safe distance from Trump, was able to reach enough voters in Northern Virginia exurbs and in the Richmond and Hampton Roads regions with compelling arguments on everyday issues affecting them such as taxes, public schools and public safety to reduce McAuliffe’s margins and lower the Great Blue Wall just enough for a historic rural turnout and an overwhelming rural Republican vote to wash over it.

A major lesson for the Democrats is they can no longer ignore rural Virginia, nor can they imagine their suburban base impregnable. So far in the 21st century, only one Democratic gubernatorial campaign has made a purposeful and sustained outreach to rural voters: Mark Warner in 2001.

In that election, many counties in Virginia’s small farming, milling and mining communities in Southside, Southwest and Shenandoah Valley areas that had gone resolutely Republican one year earlier either turned blue or held the GOP to a thin margin.

Four years later, Tim Kaine shifted his focus to Virginia’s suburbs, including an ambitious play for exurbs such as Loudoun and Prince William counties that had seemed wall-to-wall GOP for some time. It worked, and each successive Democratic campaign has run some version of Kaine’s model. More often than not, it succeeded for them except for Bob McDonnell’s 2009 victory and Youngkin’s win this fall.

“Much like the Republican strategy of holding down their losses in the urban and suburban areas, the Democrats have to hold down their losses in rural Virginia,” said political scientist Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes the stage at an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021 in Chantilly, Virginia. Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the gubernatorial race that pitted Youngkin against Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Most Democrats have no clue how to relate to rural voters. They let cultural and social issues like gun rights, abortion and LGBTQ issues make those conversations awkward while ignoring things their own party has done or proposes that benefit families, both rural and metropolitan.

It leaves longtime Democratic blogger, adviser and communications consultant Ben Tribbett scratching his head.

“We ran this entire cycle without hardly mentioning any of the extremely substantive changes that happened the last two years,” with Virginia government fully under Democratic control, Tribbett said. “The things done in the General Assembly the past two years, they were popular. They were things people had wanted for a long time, according to polling.

“I thought that was such a departure from 2019 when every Democrat in the state ran on getting Medicaid expansion done,” he said, recalling the election that put both legislative chambers in Democratic hands for the first time in a generation.

That’s particularly mystifying considering that McAuliffe decreed early on that his campaign would be about bold policy ideas and initiatives. Instead, from the moment Youngkin was nominated, McAuliffe chose to relitigate last year’s presidential race, relentlessly equating Youngkin with Trump well beyond the point where the mantra became shopworn and counterproductive.

“The party seems to have forgotten that swing voters exist, that not everything has to be a message to turn out your own base,” said Tribbett, whose tweets both cheer his party on and bluntly scold it for its failures and excesses.

Rozell agreed. “They didn’t tell their own story in this campaign,” he said. “The voters want to hear ‘What difference will this make in my life to elect this party or the other one?’ What we heard was, ‘Glenn Youngkin is Donald Trump,’ and we heard it repeatedly.”

Youngkin, meanwhile, filled the void by sharpening issues that weighed heavily on people still struggling with the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. Among them were rising costs of fuel and food and promises to cut taxes on both; spiking homicide rates (while disingenuously exploiting “defund the police” echoes from the discordant summer of 2020 that most Democrats had rejected); and parental frustrations over how their children’s public schools were run.

Certainly, there were headwinds for Virginia Democrats that blew across the Potomac from Washington that were beyond their control. There was the Biden administration’s bungled Afghanistan exit, the stalled infrastructure package that could have buoyed McAuliffe had intraparty bickering not postponed passage until it was too late, and, of course, Biden’s cratering job-approval numbers.

Could they have accounted for the 2 percentage points that were Youngkin’s victory margin? Possibly. But then there would be no pressure for a long-overdue Democratic reality check in Virginia.

Once the Virginia GOP did its hard self-examination, it found a path forward. Now the Republican Party nationally is using Virginia as a template for its aborning midterm campaigns across the country.

Looking failure in the face can do that, both for a persona and a political party. And just maybe it won’t take the Democrats a dozen years in the wilderness to work their problems out.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]