Virginia’s Election Will Reverberate … in Virginia

Virginia’s Election Will Reverberate … in Virginia


Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in Virginia is being closely watched for its national implications: Can Democrats still win by tying their Republican opponents to Donald Trump? Is a backlash against “woke education” a winning national issue for Republicans? Will this week’s results portend a Republican resurgence or a Democratic revival in next year’s congressional midterms?

In a word: No.

The results of the Virginia election very much matter to Virginians. But from a national perspective, Virginia has already taught America everything it needs to know — namely, that Democrats in general, and President Joe Biden in particular, are a lot less popular today than they were a year ago. That will hold true regardless of whether Democrat Terry McAuliffe or Republican Glenn Youngkin wins on Tuesday.

It’s also true, as it is often is, that the issues that have dominated the campaign (school-board management and curriculum design for Republicans, the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump’s antics for Democrats) will recede once the election is over. Instead, if he wins Youngkin will try to do what Republicans always do, which is cut taxes. McAuliffe, meanwhile, will try to launch free pre-K for Virginia’s three- and four-year-olds.

This is a big, important debate. In the U.S., unlike countries with proportional representation, there are a lot of zero-sum elections and political tipping points. The policy implications of McAuliffe or Youngkin getting 50.5% of the vote versus 49.5% are dramatic, just as they are for a five-seat majority for either party in Congress.

But as an exercise in tea-leaf reading, a close election is a close election.

And while Virginia governor’s race will say something about the national mood, the results are not especially predictive. Republican Bob McDonnell’s win there in 2009 did sort of presage the GOP sweep in the 2010 midterms, but it was followed by then-President Barack Obama winning re-election (nationally and in the state) easily two years later. Then McAuliffe won the governorship in 2013, which didn’t stop Democrats from getting stomped nationally in 2014.

Virginia looms large mainly because not a lot happens in odd years. Yes, there is also an odd-year governor’s race in New Jersey, where this year Governor Phil Murphy seems to be cruising to re-election. Does that mean Democrats have nothing to worry about? Not really. It mostly shows that New Jersey is a very Democratic state. So is it hopeless there for Republicans? Again, not really. Chris Christie won in 2009 and 2013.

Christie’s career, in fact, is a reminder that gubernatorial elections are interesting in large part because they’re not national bellwethers.

Even in today’s hyper-polarized, hyper-nationalized politics, these are races in which citizens remain willing to split their tickets. There are Democratic governors of Louisiana and Kansas, both elected because state parties picked strong nominees while Republicans stumbled. Gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns have local stakes and local dynamics.

In Buffalo, for example, incumbent mayor Byron Brown looks set to win re-election as a write-in candidate after losing a primary to Democratic Socialist India Walton. It’s a fascinating saga in its own right, but it says basically nothing about the future of the pass-through business deduction or the carried-interest loophole. Sometimes a compelling local story is just a compelling local story.

And Virginia is just the same. If Republicans win, they shouldn’t gloat too much. But more to the point, if Democrats win, they shouldn’t get too complacent. The danger for the party is not only that Biden’s approval ratings have tumbled as gas prices have risen. It’s that a classic dynamic known to political scientists as “thermostatic public opinion” has kicked in.

Put simply, the theory of thermostatic public opinion holds that whenever there’s a Republican in the White House, public opinion on most issues swings to the left. Whenever there’s a Democrat in the White House, the reverse happens.

Since Biden’s inauguration, Gallup has recorded an 11-point increase in the share of the public who says the federal government is doing too much, and an 8-point rise in the share of the public that says they’d prefer lower taxes and fewer public services. And that’s before Democrats actually pass their long-planned and much-discussed legislation raising taxes and expanding services.

Whatever happens in Virginia, the Biden administration is going to need to pivot sooner or later. The public mood has changed. The simple fact of the matter is that the next big round of elections a year from now is going to be much more driven by the national political climate than the Virginia governor’s race. And those campaigns — 435 in the House, 34 in the Senate — will be fought on terrain that is much more skeptical of the modern Democratic Party than Virginia.

Even if McAuliffe wins a narrow victory in Virginia, Democrats will still have difficult Senate campaigns in states such as Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and potentially even New Hampshire. And a blowout loss in the midterms would force Biden to tack to the center, a move successfully executed by many presidents, including Obama and Bill Clinton. But it’d be better for Biden to make that shift pre-emptively and minimize any losses next year.

That means taking a holistic look at political indicators that clearly show the president is in a perilous position and opinion has shifted right. And it means moving away from efforts to advance long-held progressive priorities and refocusing on the public’s short-term worries —higher gas prices, the rise in urban crime, and the continued desire for a true “return to normal” in the wake of Covid-19. Nothing that happens in a governor’s race will change any of that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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