Published originally in Jerusalem Post.
Republicans pushed Democrats out of the Virginia governorship and came up just short of an upset in heavily Democratic New Jersey on Wednesday, signaling trouble for President Joe Biden’s party heading into next year’s congressional elections.
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive, defeated former governor Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday’s vote, with the Democrat conceding on Wednesday morning. Youngkin had distanced himself just enough from former president Donald Trump to win back moderates who had supported Biden only a year ago.
In New Jersey, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy squeaked by Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, even though registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans there by more than 1 million. The result had been in doubt until the Associated Press called the race for Murphy on Wednesday evening, sparing the Democrats a humiliating defeat.
Ciattarelli, 59, a former state lawmaker, had trailed by as much as 10 points in some opinion polls but gained ground by criticizing Murphy’s unpopular mask requirements for school children.
Both Republican candidates saw strong gains in the suburbs from independent voters who had been turned off by Trump’s style of politics. The results in states that Biden won easily in 2020 suggest that Democrats’ razor-thin majorities in Congress are highly vulnerable in the 2022 elections.
If Republicans gain control of both, or even one chamber of Congress, the party would win the ability to block Biden’s legislative agenda in the final two years of his term.
“There is no doubt Tuesday was a bad day for the Democrats,” says Tevi Troy, former White House aide and author of Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump.“
The first off-year election is often bad for an incumbent president, but this one was a real blow,” he said. “Incoming Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin gave Republicans a road map for how to expand the map, while Terry McAuliffe’s losing campaign showed the flaws of running only against Trump when Trump is not on the ballot.
“Going forward, this suggests a good year for Republicans in the upcoming 2022 congressional elections,” said Troy. “We now know what works for Republicans. The question is if Democrats are willing to make changes and recognize that the left turn of the Biden administration and the congressional leadership has grave electoral consequences.”
Josh Kraushaar, managing editor for political coverage at the National Journal, said the Biden White House, “and the Democratic Party’s pandering to the progressive elements of their party cost them badly across the country, but most significantly in the governors’ races in the blue suburban-dominated states of Virginia and New Jersey.”
“Youngkin won in a state that Biden carried by 10 points just one year earlier, while Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy narrowly survived a scare in a Democratic stronghold that Biden won by 16 points,” Kraushaar added.
He said the volatile state of the economy, combined with the Democrats’ disconnect on cultural issues like crime/safety and education, are powerful fuel for Republicans to run on in next year’s midterms.
“Republicans are now heavily favored to win back control of the House in next year’s midterms, and their prospects in taking back the Senate now look much stronger.”
Sam Markstein, national political director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Youngkin’s victory “is a political earthquake.”
“If you look at the map, every single county in the state of Virginia, from the rural parts to the suburban parts to the urban parts, every single county moved towards the Republicans from 2020 to 2021, every single one,” he said.
Youngkin got 37% of the Jewish vote in Virginia, according to exit polls from the American Jewish Congress, of which Markstein noted, that “is a really high number for a Republican candidate for governor, and it’s actually a 10-point decline in support for the Democrats from last year.”
“The trend lines are there. The Jewish vote is going to the Republicans in a significant way over the year to year,” he said. “And I think that it’s just another data point that the Democrats are hemorrhaging support amongst the Jewish community, whether it’s in Florida or Virginia.”
He sounded optimistic about the Republican prospects of 2022. “I think moving forward, this is a really foreboding election for Democrats in 2022. You’ve already seen retirements in the Democratic caucus in the House. You’ve seen people say that they’re not going to run again. You’ve seen chairmen of committees say they’re not going to run again. And that doesn’t happen unless they think that they’re going to lose their majority. I would say Republicans are favored now to take back the House if it wasn’t clear before last night. It’s clear now, and I think Youngkin showed a really good blueprint for how Republicans can win in states that had gone blue before.”
And what is that blueprint?
“The lessons learned are to keep the campaigns focused on the issues that the voters care about. It sounds really simplistic, but that’s really what it is,” said Markstein. “You have to know what the voters care about. And right now, it’s very obvious that the issues at the top of the minds of voters are the economy and jobs. And, in Virginia, clearly education was a big, big issue. And in New Jersey, it was about taxes.“
So it might sound simplistic, but that’s really the key to victory here is get away from the personality types and get back to the issues that the voters care about,” he said.
Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said “We’re looking at these two races, one of which was a loss, and the other was a win that was much closer than we anticipated – too close for comfort,” she said.
“What’s clear is that the Jewish vote remains overwhelmingly supportive of Democrats,” said Soifer. “And the majority of Jews supported Terry McAuliffe and the majority of Jews supported Gov. Murphy. And so this election was not really about the Jewish vote, but it was about issues that matter to Jewish voters. And in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin tried to distance himself enough from Trump’s vitriol, disinformation and threats to our democracy that he appealed to independents, while also aligning himself at times with Trumpism to appeal to his base. And as we approach 2022, Democrats will be making clear you can’t have it both ways.”
She said that “with the Build Back Better agenda soon being passed in Congress. There will be a clear distinction between what the two parties stand for.”
“This is an inflection point for Democrats, it was a wake-up call,” she said. “It’s clear what we have to do in advance of the next election, and in doing so in terms of delivering for the American people. There will be a clear distinction between the two parties. And less ability for Republicans like Youngkin to position themselves simultaneously as both aligned with yet sufficiently distanced from Donald Trump.”
She also noted that ahead of the midterms, “we are seeing movement on both parties to the center and Jewish voters in particular have always been in the center.”