Opinion

Youngkin’s Victory in Virginia Is a Warning. It’s Also a Roadmap.

In the first statewide elections since Donald Trump’s defeat, Republicans appear to have won the governor’s race in Virginia, as well as coming closer than expected in New Jersey. While this is surprising — Republicans had not won a statewide race in Virginia in 12 years — Virginia voters have swung against whichever party holds the White House in 10 of the last 11 gubernatorial races. Perhaps reinforcing this penchant for split governance, Democrats appear to have held the historic gains they made four years ago in the House of Delegates, despite running within district lines heavily gerrymandered toward Republican advantage.

The clearest message for Democrats nationally is that the fear of Trump 2.0 is not enough to win elections. Congressional Democrats, especially those in tough races, should be sprinting to immediately pass the boldest possible version of President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. Democrats need to look like the party that knows how to govern and produces results that benefit Americans of every race and region.

I learned this lesson as part of the congressional class that lost the 2010 midterms. While some suggest my vote for the Affordable Care Act cost me my seat, I was sure that the real political cost was incurred by watering down the original proposal and taking far too long to pass it. Right now, the fight is not just immediately to pass Build Back Better but whether new benefits like child-care subsidies for the working and middle class kick in next year or down the road. Prescription drug reform should be strong enough that voters can see cheaper prices by next year’s election. Democrats need to run on results that families have felt.

Democratic delegates ran ahead of the statewide ticket, protecting most of the gains made four years ago. As State Senator Jennifer McClellan noted: “Since taking the majority in 2019, Virginia Democrats have made generational progress on a wide range of issues voters care about. We’ve raised the minimum wage, expanded paid sick leave, passed a 100 percent clean energy law, expanded voting, civil, worker and reproductive rights, implemented criminal justice reform and taken major actions on gun safety and community college affordability.” Democratic incumbents running as “reformers with results” may be a winning formula.

Voters are angry, exhausted after nearly two years of lockdowns, economic insecurity, and general disruptions of normal life. They are eager to blame whoever is in charge, which Republicans translated into enormous gains in the suburbs and sweeping wins in rural areas. Glenn Youngkin, like Mr. Trump in 2016, ran as an outsider ready to shake up the status quo. Historically, Democrats tend to win with younger “change” candidates, like John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. While Mr. Biden was seen as a break from that trend, he may have represented “change” in the immediate contrast to Trump in ways that have been harder to maintain as president.

Anachronistic efforts to blame the left have fallen flat, given that neither Terry McAuliffe, Philip Murphy or Mr. Biden represent the most progressive wing of the party. The old center-left divide obscures new divides. The fault lines of American politics today are partisan, but the ideologies on either side are surprisingly fluid, as Mr. Trump proved. For the past two weeks, the Youngkin campaign flooded my digital feed with ads attacking Mr. McAuliffe for his corporate PAC donations from Dominion Energy. Banning corporate contributions was a major part of the reform platform that propelled Democratic delegates to office in 2017. This issue has grass-roots energy across the aisle. Anti-corruption advocates, namely Clean Virginia, have built broad political support while sometimes butting heads with leaders of both parties. This is a trend traditional pundits seem to miss — that winning issues are emerging less from the old bipartisan consensus than anti-establishment comparisons. This is true about antitrust enforcement and accountability for Big Tech, limiting presidential war powers, and eliminating dark money and corporate power in politics. Any course correction should focus on steering Democrats to prioritize benefits popular with moderates, like paid family leave and strong prescription drug reform, ahead of protecting corporate lobbyists.

The issues gaining bipartisan support today are rarely emerge from established institutions. Republicans can win by running up numbers in vast expanses of low-population rural areas, and Democrats ignore those areas at their peril. The two groups in Virginia most likely to benefit from debt-free community college, for instance, are white rural families and recent immigrants or their children. We will not rebuild a common American dream when the establishment cares more about the price of the bill than the price Americans are paying to have a future. We do not need to win back all the old Johnny Cash Democrats, but authentic reformers with roots in these communities can level the score.

The culture wars clearly profit Republicans at the polls and Facebook’s bottom line. By leaning into red-hot school board fights, Youngkin became the first major Republican candidate in years to rally the MAGA base while keeping Donald Trump out of state. The Democratic Party does not support defunding the police or teaching critical race theory in public schools, so it is not surprising they are losing a battle they have no desire to wage. They lack the ability to declare a unilateral détente in the culture wars, and fear of Trump’s shadow failed to scare suburban voters with the same intensity as the images Republicans conjured of public schools running out of control.

Finally, Republicans can win fair elections. Their win in Virginia came despite Democrats passing the kind of voting rights reforms that have been stymied at the federal level. When Republicans focus more on winning over voters than making it harder to vote, they can win in areas thought to be blue. Voting reform was and should be a bipartisan issue. Early and easier voting helps historically marginalized communities. While this has been and remains primarily African-American voters, it also applies to rural voters working a double shift, younger families that may be moving frequently to find work, and seniors still navigating health threats. Let’s put the lies about rigged elections to rest, and see whose agenda most voters endorse. That may not bridge our partisan divides, but could get us back to agreeing on the right rules of the game in our shared democracy.

Tom Perriello represented the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia in the House from 2009 to 2011, and ran for the Democratic nomination in the 2017 race for governor.

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