The Main Lessons from Last Tuesday’s Election

There is a Lot of Noise Out There. Let’s Boil It Down


How Bad Was It for the Democrats?


Well, it sure wasn’t swell. But a bit of perspective takes some of the edge off.

Let’s start with the Virginia governor’s race. Virginia has an odd law that governors cannot succeed themselves. In the long history of that state, only two people have ever come back and won a second term after leaving office. In addition, the party that won the presidency loses the governorship in Virginia about 99% of the time.

So, McAuliffe really had the odds against him, even though he was clearly the better choice for governor.

The New Jersey race certainly was a nail biter, in a state Biden won handily last year. But take note that the last time a Democrat won reelection as governor of NJ was in 1977 – almost 50 years ago. Take the win and keep moving.

Lastly, the party that occupies the White House more often than not takes a beating coming up to midterms and this week was something of a prequel to midterms, as all these races had national attention.

Any Actual Good News for Democrats?

Yeah, actually.

New York elected only its second Black mayor in its history. Boston elected a woman not born and raised in Boston, not a man, and a minority. All those are Boston firsts.

LGBTQ candidates around the country did well. Moderate Democratic candidates and initiatives chalked up wins around the country. The more extreme versions of defunding police went down to defeat pretty well everywhere that was an issue.

Still, Virginia Hurts. What’s the Story?

It hurts worse than some realize. Sure, the Democrats lost the governorship, but they also lost the other statewide offices – both the Lieutenant Governor (the new one appears to be something of a gun nut) and the Attorney General. Oh, and one half of the legislature. So yeah, this was ugly.

The margins were very small but big enough to lose pretty much across the board. Why? What happened? When all is said and done, I think it came down to six keys.

1- Youngkin’s Campaign

He ran a slick campaign. Actually, he ran a two-faced campaign, and it worked. He convinced a lot of people that he is a regular guy (just your average hedge fun millionaire who pays no taxes and funds his own campaign).

When convenient, he played up to the worst aspects of Trumpism. He clearly knows Trump is toxic and kept some distance, but not enough. It will be interesting to see if this guy believes in anything or is just a mechanic.

2- McAuliffe as a Candidate

I lived in Virginia when McAuliffe was running for governor the first time. I had my doubts – his reputation was as something of a sleaze ball in the Clinton machinery. But I worked for him – even hosted a rally with him at our house. Surprise – he turned out to be an outstanding governor, in pretty much every way that counted.

The Washington Post strongly endorsed him this time based largely on that record. Richard Nixon beat that second try curse, after losing both the White House and the California governorship, but few others can pull this off. Even the exceptional Teddy Roosevelt could not do it.

But when he ran this time, I got nervous. People tend not to want to go back to something in the past – they look for the next generation of leadership. As we say here in Thomas Wolfe country, you can’t go home again. His record was both his strength and his albatross.

3- Phrases That Live in Infamy

History is full of things candidates wished they had not said. McAuliffe’s was in one of the debates, when he said parents should not decide what children are taught.

It was obvious what he meant, and he was right. But it was an artless choice of words and the opposition beat him to a pulp with it. By election night, this was the number two issue cited in exit polling.

4- Two Out of State Senators

Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have managed to delay by months legislation that is wildly popular, would have boosted Democrats everywhere, and given the country a much-needed sense of momentum.  This has cost the country, and the Democratic party, immeasurably.

The country is in remarkably good shape in many ways, but people are concerned that the pandemic lingers, that the economy has challenges with labor, supply chain, and inflation. Put simply, these two senators carry large responsibility for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Eventually, one or both will pay a price. Sinema is up for reelection first and surely will be primaried out. But for now, the legislation needs to get done – right now.

5- Joe Biden

 In my view, Biden has been a pretty darn good president so far. He has accomplished a lot in a short time. But in terms of this election, he carries two major responsibilities.

One, he let the key legislation process drag on way too long. He kept hoping the two aforementioned senators would come around, that at least a few Republicans would see the importance of what he is offering America.

Easy to criticize from here, but it is hard to imagine Lyndon Johnson putting up with this silly dance for so long.

Two, the administration has done a poor job of telling their story – of what has been accomplished and why their proposals deserve to be national policy. They just have a weak narrative and have ceded too much public energy.

6- The Media

Everyone likes to pick on the media, especially the mainstream media, but I must join the chorus for a bit. The election coverage was endlessly horse race material, not substance. It was, for the most part, disappointing at national and local levels. Add to that the over play of some elements that make them seem bigger than they are.

An example: from the coverage, you would think there was massive resistance to covid vaccinations. But over 80% of those eligible have been vaccinated, and the percentage grows daily. As soon as the president set up the coming mandates, thousands more got shots.

It’s a small percentage of willingly ignorant people – led by feckless governors, talk show hosts, and right-wing preachers that are the problem. They are not a national movement.  But you would not know that from media patterns. We need a better media community, even if we don’t deserve it.

What Now?

A lot will be determined by what happens with that bottled up legislation. If it finally gets passed, attention can move on and people can start seeing the benefits that result from the legislation.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who voted this week essentially gave a pass to a Republican party that represents everything that is wrong and dangerous for our country today.

It’s a long way to the midterms and 2024. Endless things could happen. But the clock is ticking.

            Bill Clontz

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5 replies to The Main Lessons from Last Tuesday’s Election

  1. Excellent. Counting on enough time to counter. I am glad you were positive about Terry. I always felt he contributed so much to Hilary’s loss, and I thought he ran a poor campaign this time. We can only hope the Democrats understand this is wake-up call.
    Thank you, Bill

  2. You gave me some hope with this very good summary. Well said and thank you!

  3. IMHO, a good analysis. Missed one thing – VA holds its elections in odd-numbered years. It’s an old, largely southern trick to reduce the turnout by “those people” (esp. non-white, but also working class whites). When next VA elects Dems, I would love to see the statewide elections rescheduled to coincide with federal elections, and the gubernatorials to coincide with presidentials.

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