Nothing motivates conservative Democrats like an excuse for inaction, and Virginia’s sucker punch of a gubernatorial election Tuesday night offered a golden opportunity for them to pump the legislative brakes.
Let’s own the bad news: after an increasingly vitriolic campaign centered around the bogeyman of “Critical Race Theory,” Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat and former Governor Terry McAuliffe to end what has been a successful and effective streak of Democratic victories in the Old Dominion dating back nearly a decade. In the race to place blame, the centrists zeroed in on their left flank.
To a progressive, it feels like many centrist Democrats spent the past few weeks quietly hoping McAuliffe would lose—or at least scrape soberingly close to a loss. With McAuliffe’s defeat sure to turn Democratic jitters into a full-on 2022 panic, centrists are racing to shift blame onto progressives even if that narrative makes no actual sense.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester was so eager to start firing on the left that he accepted McAuliffe’s defeat before Virginia counted even a single vote. On Tuesday morning, Tester told Politico the Progress Caucus’ failure to ink a deal with Manchin on spending could sink McAuliffe. “We haven’t gotten anything done,” Tester snapped. “That says enough about their strategy.”
In his blind swiping for a lefty scapegoat, Tester gets to the heart of a real problem. Beltway animals like Tester, Manchin, and cable news anchors love to draw sweeping political lessons from Virginia’s off-year elections, but they’re imperfect-at-best augurs. That’s especially true this year, when the Virginia GOP effectively rewrote its entire political rulebook to prevent a full-on Trumpist takeover. Democrats should read into their political future with caution.
Democrats worried about 2022 don’t need a crystal ball to understand what needs to be done. Supermajorities of Americans are already shouting their preferences: They want as much of Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda as possible—and a Democratic Party willing to stand behind his ambitious and necessary promises. The worst thing that could possibly happen, then, is for the party’s conservatives to read McAuliffe’s loss as a sign that Americans are turned off by the Democratic agenda.
Maybe nothing hurt McAuliffe so much as McAuliffe himself. Voters didn’t respond to his swings at Youngkin, which respondents in the AP VoteCast survey said came off as unfair and made the former governor look petty. But nowhere did McAuliffe injure himself as severely as during a debate with Youngkin, when he shot back at a question about parental involvement in school curricula by flatly stating, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
That flippant remark galvanized Republicans around the country. Youngkin became an off-year cause célèbre and a darling of the right-wing media outrage machine. The messaging that McAuliffe was about to force Critical Race Theory into the fragile minds of Virginia children consumed almost every other issue in what had previously been McAuliffe’s race. Virginia voters who listed concerns about parents being cut out of their child’s education split 3-to-1 for Youngkin, according to CBS News exit polling.
McAuliffe and Democrats didn’t need to be caught flat-footed by the GOP’s bogus “school takeover” hysteria. Lawmakers and progressive activists have been calling out the Republican playbook since summer. After McAuliffe’s tough loss, many are speaking up again.
“Republicans won by creating a fake bogeyman and telling suburban voters they will defeat it,” The Daily Beast’s Wajahat Ali tweeted on Tuesday night. “Dems didn’t come out with a counter message. And there it is. Hats off to the depraved cynicism and villainy and race baiting. It worked in Virginia like we said it would.”
And with all due respect to Team McAuliffe, their non-response to the GOP’s fearmongering will spell disaster for Democrats if that strategy is repeated across the congressional map in 2022. We’re already seeing the opening wave of Republicans’ new culture war in school board recall efforts unfolding nationwide.
While McAuliffe may have been hoisted by his own overconfidence in Virginia, lawmakers heading home to their districts in 2022 will face their own reckoning. There’s one simple trick to averting a Democratic bloodbath next year: Do what voters say they want. A Vox/Data for Progress poll conducted last month found 71 percent of voters support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and 60 percent support Biden’s signature spending plan at the full $3.5 trillion. These aren’t mere “suggestion” numbers — they’re supermajorities. Democrats ignore those clearly stated wishes at their own electoral peril.
Passing a robust domestic spending program and moving quickly to advance a voting rights package is the minimum Democrats can do to show they are acting on Biden’s lofty campaign promises. Those are also two key areas where conservative Democrats—not progressives—are opposed to the consensus within both their own party and their own country. For all their complaining about making Build Back Better work for “regular Americans,” voters want a deal that looks much more like Pramil Jayapal’s than Joe Manchin’s.
In a moment of party panic, Manchin wants Democrats to believe that the way to please voters angry over the lack of a big Biden spending bill is to make that spending bill even smaller and potentially kill it entirely. The opposite is true, and Biden’s continued support for Jayapal’s progressives during negotiations heavily implies the White House agrees. Instead of spending months dissecting what is ultimately an unfortunate but not unexpected outcome in Virginia, Democrats should return to work prepared to pass an agenda that actually resembles their 2020 platform. Joe Manchin won’t be happy.