4 things we learned from the Virginia election that we already knew
Virginia has elected Republican Glenn Youngkin to be its next governor, challenging the state's emerging reputation as a reliably Democratic electorate. The governor's race in New Jersey is too close to call at the time of this writing, and some of these ideas apply there, too. But, fairly or not, the Virginia race was highly nationalized and drew a great deal of national attention - including the inevitable rounds of lessons and interpretations of the election results.
Racism is a thing
It’s a depressing reality and certainly one I would have hoped were no longer true. But political strategies that rely on a wide range of racial animosities and fears are hardly new. Linking racial backlash to anxieties about education and school children is a very old tactic. (Here's some reading to get started) One lesson of the 1960s and 1970s is that racially progressive attitudes often fade when faced with issues that come close to home. These kinds of political attacks are also often mixed with gender-related and sexual fears, and the politics of the 21st century offer no shortage of opportunities to deploy the politics of fear in this area.
I genuinely don’t know what to do about this. It’s a very ugly reality. But commentators and analysts could devote more time thinking about solutions if we stopped acting so surprised that it still happens.
Republicans are still competitive post-Trump
Of all the things we knew, we perhaps knew this one most of all. Trump performed quite well in the 2020 election for a president serving during a disastrous economy and pandemic. Republicans picked up seats in the House and kept Senate seats they might have lost. Even in the 2018 elections, widely considered a blue wave, Republicans picked up Senate seats (in expected places) - North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri.
Youngkin provides useful clues about what a post-Trump GOP might look like, at least in purple areas, clinging to some Trump talking points and ideas (see item 1) while distancing himself from some of the former president’s norm-breaking rhetoric and political antics.
For Democratic strategists, this may prove to be useful information. But it’s not especially new information. Trump himself won in 2016 with this combination of racially conservative appeals and ambiguity on other questions, and promises to improve the economy. His lack of, shall we say, political discipline has always been an advantage with some voters and a liability with others, but his basic formula was a combination of novelty and promises, traditional Republican fare, and Trumpist nationalism, with enough blurriness that people could see what they wanted to see.
Democrats have a complicated identity and coalition
Maintaining a multi-racial coalition in a racially divided country is hard. Maintaining a coalition across class lines, in which some voters want to see structural change and others crave “normalcy” is also hard. The Democrats have had particularly vocal fights over long-standing party leaders like McAuliffe (and Biden) and a wide range of perspectives auditioning to be the future of the party, with different visions of policy, ideology, and demographic representation. One implication is that nationalized contests are probably trickier for Democrats than for Republicans. There are no easy answers or winning formulas that work everywhere.
This is probably the biggest one - the party that holds the White House (and in this case both chambers in Congress as well) is vulnerable and likely to lose seats.
Given this regular occurrence, why the focus on finding lessons and explanations? In some sense, it seems like commentators are eager for any sign that politics is about to change, that this election will shake up the dimensions of American politics that are at once dull and erratic, fractious and predictable. This one will be the realignment, the 1860, the 1932, the earthquake, the big shift, the contest that ends the stalemate and reflects the depths of the real crisis we’re in.
This sort of goes back to the thermostatic voting idea, which is an important concept but perhaps one we’re not curious enough about. Political observers have accepted this as a regular feature of political behavior in our context, even as that context has dramatically changed. One reason, perhaps, that this has persisted through a period of dramatic polarization is that while the party in power changes, very little else does. Policies are passed, or not, and the basic problems of healthcare and economic inequality and the environment remain. Thermostatic politics is the most recent expression of how unresponsive American politics can be.
Maybe these assessments are right, and maybe they’re not. But if we have to over-analyze a single state’s outcome for lessons, we should look for reasons and not narratives. It’s true that Biden is unpopular right now, and that has electoral implications. He’s unpopular because - in spite or because of administration efforts - everything sucks for a lot of people. Electing a Republican governor in Virginia is unlikely to fix the problem, obviously. Instead of trying to relearn what we already know, maybe it’s time to start thinking about why we’re stuck in these patterns, and what could create real change.