The spirit of the orange MAGA monster is stirring.
Despite Biden’s attempt to “return to normalcy”, with the Republican’s victory in the Virginia Gubernatorial Race, a state Biden won by 10 points last November, and their near-victory in solid-Blue New Jersey, where Biden won by 16 points, it’s clear that looking forward, the Democrats are in trouble.
Biden supporters may try to dismiss the results as an inevitability of any administration, after all, the party in the White House has lost eleven of the last twelve gubernatorial elections in Virginia. But to dismiss this is to completely miss the point of why the loss occurred.
The Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin did what many regarded as a political impossibility; in walking the narrowest of tightropes, he managed to retain the explosive passion that Trump cultivated in his base, whilst also winning back traditionally Republican suburbs who grudgingly voted Democrat in 2020 in disgust at Trump’s rhetoric.
Youngkin managed to fuse two political bases, which were thought to have been irreversibly pushed apart by Trump. If this “Trump plus suburbs” formula can be replicated elsewhere, then the Democrats are going to be slaughtered in the midterms, and the GOP will be back on the rampage.
So what went wrong for the Democrats?
Throughout their campaign, they focused on wheeling out heavyweight endorsements for their candidate, from Barack Obama to Joe Biden, in the belief that harnessing the “star power” would generate excitement and momentum on their side. However, voters wanted to hear about “kitchen table issues”, such as the problems with Virginia’s public services and schools.
Youngkin gave them what they wanted, with a clear agenda about how he would solve the problems facing ordinary Virginians, whereas Biden sounded like he thought he was still in the 2020 election, mentioning Trump 24 times in a single speech. The Democrats didn’t talk about the issues that mattered to voters, leaving Youngkin the space to own them.
Issues of campaign strategy are easy enough to solve. More worrying for the Democrats should be why several visits from a President who won Virginia by 10 points last year failed to generate the momentum needed.
Research by Rob Mellen Jr. and Kathleen Searles into presidential campaign appearances during midterm elections show that visits and endorsements from the President can boost turnout in midterm elections, but only if the President is popular.
Biden’s plummeting approval ratings, culminating in an NPR-PBS poll showing that a plurality of Democrats no longer wants him on the 2024 ticket, meant that his campaigning effect failed to produce the necessary uplift. A President who isn’t able to excite voters to turn up is a real problem.
But the problem goes deeper than just an unpopular President and a lacklustre campaign.
These are things that the Democrat Party, if not Biden himself, can overcome. What they cannot counter however is the reframing of Trumpian populism in a way that does not repulse moderate Republicans. What they cannot counter, is the new acceptable face of Trumpism.
In a move emblematic of Trump’s post-truth style of politics, Youngkin repeatedly claimed that Critical Race Theory, the idea that “race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies”, was rampant in Virginia’s education system. In fact, it’s nowhere on the curriculum.
Youngkin was able to use scaremongering about Critical Race Theory to whip up Trump’s base, but also to prey on fears amongst the suburbs about the education system. He has found an issue to generate the rural white anger which was the fuel of the MAGA movement, but which is also a hot-button issue for classist suburban Republicans, who grudgingly voted for Biden in 2020 due to opposition to some of Trump’s more tactless and overtly racist rhetoric.
The Democrats’ response to this was floundering and ineffective. Their candidate, Terry McAuliffe, said when asked that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”, which only helped fuel the fears of worried suburban parents that their children were being taught, in the words of Youngkin, “to see everything through a lens of race and then to divide them into buckets and have children [who] are called privileged and others [who] are victims.”
McAuliffe’s campaign was simply unable to come up with an answer to Youngkin because the discussion was not based on truth. When your opponent does not recognise facts, they are very difficult to counter.
This is something the Democrats have struggled with throughout the Trump era, but they thought they’d finally found the solution by mobilising the distaste at Trump’s rhetoric. However, without a candidate who generates such vehement disgust amongst many moderate voters, this tactic fails.
Unless the Democrats can find an alternative way to deal with the post-truth spirit of Trump, but with an acceptable and less orange face, then get ready to see a Republican rampage in the midterms next year, and almost certainly a Republican victory in 2024.
Unless President Joe Biden wakes up, the spirit of Donald Trump will be back in the White House. For the sake of America, and indeed when we think of issues such as climate change, and for the sake of the world, we have to hope and pray that doesn’t happen.