Virginia's election: Notes from the field
Democrats had no message to counter Trumpism without Trump.
Heading to Virginia to canvass on Election Day, I suspected things would go badly before I even crossed the state line.
Northern Virginia roadways were plastered with fire-engine-red Youngkin signs, while blue signs for McAuliffe were few and far between. But the first Youngkin signs I passed that morning weren’t in Virginia. They were in the District of Columbia.
Planted alongside Rock Creek Parkway, a DC commuter artery used by motorists heading home to Virginia, the signs brashly announced the GOP’s resolve to retake the governorship and the state.
At a Democratic field office in Leesburg, the parking lot was mostly empty when I pulled in. While there’d been a steady stream of canvassers over the weekend, the only thing streaming on Tuesday morning was a cold rain.
It was a dispiriting day of door knocking. Rainwater squelched in my sneakers and puddled on the plastic covering my iPad, blurring the data I tapped in. The few voters I talked with were friendly, but the apartment complex was working-class, and at midday almost no one was home.
Still, on three previous outings, on sunny weekends in middle-class neighborhoods, I’d felt a similar lack of energy on the Democratic side. My sample was small, but the number of voters, in supposedly Dem-leaning households, who told me they were not voting or were undecided seemed disturbingly high.
So it wasn’t a surprise when the GOP swept the top-of-ticket races, albeit with narrow margins. Results aren’t final, but it looks like we’ll lose the Virginia House too.
Headlines predict doom for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. The party “faces a grim future,” warned the New York Times. Maybe. But we’re looking at one state, Virginia. It’s said to have “turned blue” in the past four years. But did it? Or was its blueness partly an artifact of the Trump abomination, and we’re now seeing a reversion to the (purple) mean? Virginia nearly always elects a governor from the party that’s out of power in Washington. And McAuliffe, a recycled candidate (he had an earlier term as governor, from 2014 to 2018), ran a lackluster campaign.
Nonetheless, everybody’s using the results to bolster their own narrative. Conservatives insist the Virginia debacle proves that Democrats in Washington have moved too far left, too fast. Progressives counter that national Dems’ failure to enact the bold agenda they promised is to blame.
Party infighting in DC certainly hasn’t helped. But Democrats in Virginia have been fairly unified over the past two years and have used their control of state government to get things done. They’ve passed gun safety laws, expanded voting rights, rolled back unnecessary restrictions on abortion access, raised the minimum wage, and more. A majority of Virginians support these measures, but somehow the Dems didn’t manage to take credit for them. Instead, McAuliffe tried to make it about Trump, who wasn’t on the ballot.
My object in this post isn’t to engage in punditry. I’m not qualified to be a pundit, in part because after four years of Trump I simply can’t understand how anyone anywhere could elect another Republican to anything, ever. Also, I’m not from Virginia (though that hasn’t stopped a parade of non-Virginian media figures from commenting).
But two of the observations being made are worth noting because they point to the playbook that Republicans will use next year.
First, the GOP managed to thread the needle on Trump. They kept him out of the state. Their candidates were Trumpy enough to keep the base happy yet anodyne enough to reassure nervous suburbanites. Virginians didn’t believe McAuliffe when he said that Youngkin, a wealthy financier, was Trump “in a fleece vest and khakis” (the suburban-dad uniform, apparently, though I wouldn’t know).
Second, while keeping Trump at arm’s length, Republicans waged Trumpian culture wars aggressively. Several weeks ago I was driving to a canvass in Loudoun County with two friends who live in Northern Virginia, one of them a former teacher. They remarked that the big issue in Loudoun was schools.
Schools? That brings us to the saddest and most shameful part of this mess, which left me sickened as I watched the returns on Tuesday night. In the absence of effective Democratic messaging, the GOP was able to fill the void with nonsense and lies. “Schools” and “parents’ rights” became code words for Republican fantasies that played on white Virginians’ anxieties, including their anxieties around race.
Republicans got voters worked up into a lather about critical race theory. Or what they think is critical race theory. They actually don't know what it is. They just know they're against it. I’ve encountered CRT in editing academic journals, and it’s a useful framework for understanding the legal-institutional foundations of racism in this country. Youngkin announced that, if elected, he would “ban” it. What could that mean? CRT isn’t taught in elementary-secondary schools in Virginia, but it became code for any mention of race in the classroom. Other themes of the “parents’ rights” narrative included books – Toni Morrison’s Beloved was a lightning rod – bathrooms, and a boy wearing a skirt.
It resonated. I remember a man who shouted angrily through his car window, as we canvassed a subdivision, “You should talk to the parents!” “I am a parent,” I said, and walked away.
But while I can ignore boors, progressives can’t dismiss any of this. We need to understand the economic and social stressors in people’s lives. There was already anger among exhausted Virginia parents trapped at home for 18 months, trying to supervise their kids’ Zoom school and make a living at the same time. That anger was a tinderbox waiting for a match. Democrats need to listen to working people, take bold action to improve their lives, and then develop strong messaging about what they did and why.
And finally, while the Virginia election turned in part on suburban swing voters, they’re not the only voters. Catering to them alone will not produce the wins we need. As Robert Reich has commented, “The Democratic coalition depends on highly motivated voters of color (who are watching what happens especially on voting rights and police reform); women (who are watching on paid family leave and childcare); and young people (who are watching on climate change).”
Dems, take note. We have a year to get this right.