The takes from Virginia keep coming and I’ve still got more. That said, I think we need to remember that an election, much like a poll, is a snapshot in time. Right now, Democrats are struggling with a difficult national environment, some of their own making and some not. The election, particularly in Virginia, should be instructive, not predictive, for 2022.
My first thought is that too many people are trying to blame race for Terry McAuliffe’s loss on Tuesday. While it certainly played a role, race is present in every election in the South and has been forever. That won’t change in the foreseeable future.
But it’s also simplistic to blame just race. While Critical Race Theory is the latest bugaboo Republicans are using to scare White working class voters, the broader culture wars play just as big a role. Democrats have allowed themselves to be branded as the party that’s attacking traditional values. From defund the police to CRT to gun control to the debate over transgender rights, Democrats are seen by conservatives, especially in rural areas, as a threat to their way of life. The CRT attack didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was believable because people had preconceived notions about the Democratic Party.
What’s most concerning should be the turnout. The GOP showed up without Trump on the ticket. In 2017 in the Virginia gubernatorial race and 2018 in the midterms, the GOP base that drove up turnout in the 2016 and 2020 elections largely stayed home, while the Democratic base, angry and scared of Trump, came out. This year, the GOP base showed up in force in the off-year election without Trump on the ticket. If Democrats hope to win in 2022, they need their turnout to keep pace with that of the GOP or reduce the reasons Republicans have to go vote against them.
One op-ed in the New York Times calls on Democrats to push back against CRT by educating voters “that powerful elites and special interests use race as a tool of division to distract hard-working people of all races while they get robbed blind.” I’ve been hearing some version of this all my life, but I don’t think the authors have spent much time around those rural White working class voters, at least not in the South. Those voters aren’t thinking about politics. They’re reactionaries responding to negative stimuli.
Instead of trying to educate working class White Southerners about the evils of racism, Democrats could make themselves less scary. They should have forcefully pushed back against the Defund the Police narrative when it first came out. They should dismiss the CRT fearmongering by assuring parents, often and repeatedly, that schools will teach history, not an agenda. It might not convince many to change their votes, but it could slow turnout driven by fear.
And Democrats need to run on the issues they are trying to pass, not against Donald Trump. As so many progressives have pointed out, the Build Back Better agenda is popular, but nobody knows what it is. Spend more money telling people that Democrats are pushing for paid family leave and universal child care. Let them know that Democrats want to give Medicare the authority to negotiate drug prices to save money for consumers. And remind them that Democrats want to expand Medicaid to hold down health care costs for everyone. Don’t run on a slogan. Talk about how good legislation will impact lives of working class Americans and make sure voters know that Republicans are standing in the way.
Race and cultural issues are never going away for good and they will always be most potent when people are uncertain about their future. We are in the midst of a historical reckoning and global pandemic at the same time. It’s no coincidence that CRT and defund the police worked to scare people to people the polls. Democrats should work to make themselves less threatening to people who are driven by fear.
I’ve got more thoughts but this is enough for today and I may need to express it better later.