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A bad omen for Democrats and 4 other election night takeaways

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly early Wednesday. Youngkin topped Democrat Terry McAuliffe, flipping the Virginia governor's office back to the GOP.
Andrew Harnik
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly early Wednesday. Youngkin topped Democrat Terry McAuliffe, flipping the Virginia governor's office back to the GOP.

Updated November 3, 2021 at 10:30 AM ET

Republican Glenn Youngkin pulled off the upset in Virginia, defeating Terry McAuliffe in the governor's race. And in perhaps an even bigger stunner in New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciatarelli was within a percentage point of incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

The New Jersey race could be headed for a recount, but just the fact that the election was this close shows how much energy Republicans had on their side heading into Tuesday night. Both results are sending shockwaves through a Democratic political establishment that has had little good news over the last few months.

In that time, the delta variant and prices have surged, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was chaotic, and Democrats' agenda on Capitol Hill stalled. While the economy has continued to recover and coronavirus cases are declining again, we are a long way from President Biden's "summer of freedom."

All of it has added up to a decline in Biden's poll numbers and political capital. The cherry on top is Democrats losing an election in a state Biden won by 10 percentage points in the 2020 presidential election and being essentially tied in a state Biden won by 16.

Here are five takeaways from the results Tuesday night:

1. It's a bad omen for Democrats' hopes in 2022

It's one night, and you never want to over-read the results.

That's especially true of Virginia, which had been getting so much outsized attention because:

  • It was essentially the only game in town, apart from New Jersey.
  • History is on the side of the party not in power in the White House, because the Virginia election is one of the first chances for opponents of the sitting president to register their frustration. New Jersey also has a history of bucking the system — no Democratic governor has won reelection in the state since 1977.
  • And McAuliffe certainly had his problems as a candidate ("I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.").
  • But this one's obvious.

    Democrats had won every statewide race in Virginia since 2009 and the last four presidential elections, including Biden's double-digit win. While the New Jersey race had appeared to get closer in recent days, Murphy was still seen as the odds-on favorite.

    Democrats were already fighting an uphill battle to retain control of the House in next year's midterms, and this result won't help morale among members. Do we start to see additional congressional Democrats jump ship and retire? Watch for that.

    2. The suburbs are still swing areas

    During the presidency of Donald Trump, the suburbs shifted toward Democrats. They took over the House in 2018, for example, largely because of their wins in center-right-leaning areas.

    As a result, many thought college-educated suburbanites might be permanently in Democrats' camp.

    But Tuesday night's results in both states showed that's not quite the case.

    Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks at an election night rally Tuesday in McLean.
    Win McNamee / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks at an election night rally Tuesday in McLean.

    Youngkin and Ciatarelli were able to do better than Trump did in 2020 in lots of suburban areas — as well as in many cases outpacing Trump in some rural counties.

    It's a warning sign for Democrats, and a roadmap for other Republicans to emulate, with the keys perhaps being image and education as an issue.

    3. Republicans may have figured out a way to run in the post-Trump era

    Youngkin ran with the image of a nonoffensive, suburban dad and businessman, donning a fleece vest and a smile. He didn't appear onstage with Trump, though he certainly played into some of the same issues Trump voters care about. ("The FBI is trying to silence parents," he said in one ad.)

    While Youngkin was going on Fox News, touting talking points that made the right happy, he was also running ads in the state that played up a softer side. Youngkin did everything he could to walk that line, not to look or sound like Trump, while not offending his base and still accepting the former president's endorsement.

    Democrats tried to paint Youngkin as a Trump clone, but it didn't appear Virginia voters bought it. This race showed that tying a Republican to Trump only goes so far — even in a Democratic-leaning state.

    Also key was that the Trump/conservative base was able to be activated, even without Trump on the ballot — and with turnout that exceeded 2017 turnout in both states.

    4. Democrats need an answer on education and race

    Call it a "racist dog whistle," as McAuliffe did; call it white grievance, but Democrats have to come up with a convincing way to answer the (often false) charges about how children are being taught about structural racism in schools.

    "Wherever you look, it looks like these college-educated, suburban white voters, who Democrats thought were breaking their way, they rallied back around 'Critical Race Theory,' " Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said on MSNBC on Tuesday night.

    He's talking about the academic framework taught in law schools that examines how racism is embedded in society. It's not generally taught in elementary or high schools, if at all, but that hasn't stopped mostly white, conservative parents, who have overrun school board meetings across the country, from accusing schools of doing so.

    Youngkin rode that wave and owned the issue. It was a key part of his messaging at campaign events and in ads. Exit polls showed that parents who thought they should have a lot of say in schools broke for Youngkin by a wide margin.

    Some Democrats would lay blame at McAuliffe's feet, pointing out that he stepped in it with his answer at a debate that parents shouldn't influence what schools teach. They can chalk it up to a one-off, but the lesson Republicans are going to learn from this race is that the messaging on education and race worked and to use it over and over again.

    Belcher called it the latest way Republicans are trying to "tribalize an electorate, to drive up the white vote. ... We're going to see this again in the midterm and it's going to be problematic."

    Democrats are going to have to figure out a way to respond that breaks through and doesn't continue to put them on the defensive.

    5. Demographics aren't necessarily destiny

    Even though Virginia has trended more Democratic over the last decade or so — largely because of huge demographic shifts — that's not everything.

    People aren't compelled to vote, and they don't always break how they traditionally have. Especially in off-year, lower-turnout elections when a party is facing political headwinds, the on-the-ground work becomes much harder.

    In the weeks leading up to Election Day, community leaders on the ground said they were dealing with a degree of cynicism and apathy that made it harder to motivate some base Democratic groups to get out and vote.

    What makes this Virginia election unique, however, is that McAuliffe actually got more than 200,000 more votes than outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam did in 2017, but still lost.

    That indicates that while Democrats largely hit their marks with some base voter groups despite the reported apathy, they weren't able to keep pace with a Republican base that was on fire.

    Demographics are important and can generally tell the direction a state is heading politically. But destiny is not automatically steered by demographics, especially in an election when Republicans were able to get to more than 85% of the votes they got in the presidential election for an off-year governor's race.

    It's also a reminder that — right or wrong — anger motivates, whether it's about education, race or mask mandates.

    That was certainly true of Democrats getting out to vote when Trump was on the ballot, and it was true Tuesday in both states for Republicans.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.