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Thursday, December 2, 2021

Virginia’s ominous warning to Joe Biden and the Democratic Party


The Virginia governor’s campaign has been viewed as a referendum on the current president of the White House. The result this time—Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost to his Republican opponent Glenn Youngin, one year after Biden swept the state by 10 percentage points—the equivalent of a referendum squared. American politics is more nationalized than ever before, and this is a terrible result for the president. Virginia’s message to him was to reverse the situation before it was too late.

Youngkin’s victory will serve as a template for the Republican Party to retake Congress a year later. It boils down to two things. First, keep Trump’s foundation by giving them enough red meat. Youngkin’s attacks on the so-called “critical racial theory” teaching in Virginia schools and his criticism of the rules for wearing masks were enough to increase turnout in rural Virginia and small towns. Youngkin has shown great skill in ensuring that Donald Trump is supported while ensuring that the former president stays away from the state.

This makes his second plan-voting for a more pragmatic suburban shift to Biden in 2020-easier to implement. If the central actor were to make a hologram of a gentle suburban dad, Youngkin would meet the requirements. His relatively mild manner gave him the opportunity to assure white-collar voters that he did not have a whistling nativist tune when he did this. This allows him to say words from another politician (such as Trump), which sound dangerous. When Yang King publicly responded to the false conspiracy theories that the FBI was infiltrating school board meetings to harass conservatives, he sounded worried rather than inflammatory. If Trump said the same thing, it would sound the alarm.

All of this provides a thought-provoking omen for Biden and the Democratic Party. To be sure, other issues, including rising inflation, the Democratic Party’s chaos on Capitol Hill, and the impression of the incompetence of the United States withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, have exacerbated Biden’s troubled presidency. His national approval rating has fallen to negative value since August, which proves this. This alone is enough to make McAuliffe lose the Virginia election. But cultural issues also played a huge role.

Virginia itself has not been affected by the rising crime rate, has no borders with Mexico, and does not teach critical racial theories in its schools. There is no attempt to cancel funding for the police. But in a highly polarized media environment, this fear can easily be aroused. McAuliffe’s campaign boiled down to his claim that Jankin was Trump’s agent. Critical race theory is a fiction of people’s imagination. Both failed. The cultural point may be technically correct. But pedantic is not a strategy.

The lesson of the Democrats is that they must overcome two shortcomings. First, contrary to conservative folklore, mainstream media has no effect on the Democratic Party. CNN was just as happy with the attacks of Democratic and Republican presidents. Biden has recently provided enough materials to the media. He participated in the election last year with his ability and quality, but he hardly showed this in the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and his management of the democratic internal war on Capitol Hill. The fact that Congress has not passed any of Biden’s signature bills certainly does not help McAuliffe’s turnout. In contrast, conservative media has consistently been disciplined for supporting Republican candidates. They will not be overwhelmed by the mission of objective reporting.

Second, Democrats cannot rely on the fear of Trump to vote as they did in 2020. Youngkin’s message is Trump-like, there is no Trump. It turns out that the claim that Trump was behind the scenes did not scare enough voters to vote. The Democrats did their best to get Trump to appear in the Virginia campaign. Youngkin stopped him wisely.

It turns out that, in fact, when Trump is not on the ballot, Democrats are not good at fighting culture wars. We will see how Youngkin’s strategy works in next year’s midterm elections. If Republicans can successfully repeat it, as it now seems, they will suddenly become the problem: how can they stop Trump from running in 2024?

edward.luce@ft.com



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