In November, Democrats lost a Governor’s race in Virginia, a state Biden won by 10, and they barely held on in New Jersey even though Biden won it by 16 just a year earlier. National media outlets and so-called political experts were quick to chalk the losses up to Biden’s lowered popularity and Congressional Democrats’ inability to deliver on his Build Back Better agenda. There’s little doubt that the national political headwinds contributed to the party’s struggles last month, but the story may be more complicated. The reason Democrats fell so far in Virginia and New Jersey may actually have a lot to do with the specific politics ofVirginia and New Jersey. 

Democrat Terry McAullife lost by about two points, a 12-point drop from Biden, and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy won by 3, a 13-point drop. Yet, elsewhere in the country on the very same election night, Democrats performed significantly better. In particular, Ohio held the only two Federal elections in November 2021: two special elections for U.S. House seats in Congress. Federal elections are often more demonstrative of parties’ national political standings, since voters understand that their federal representatives work on national issues, and state politicians work on state issues. Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, for example, will not have a vote to make Representative Kevin McCarthy the next Speaker of the House. This can idea be seen in the fact that three deep-red states (Louisiana, Kentucky and Kansas) have Democratic Governors, and three deep-blue states (Vermont, Massachusettets, Maryland) have Republican Governors, yet out of 435 Representatives in Congress, not a single one holds a seat that his/her party lost by more than 10 in the Presidential Election in 2020.  

Ohio Congressional Elections, therefore, are more likely to be an indicator of Congressional Democrats’ current popularity than Governor elections in Virginia and New Jersey. Of the two congressional districts which had special elections, the 15th was in a red-leaning district, and the 11th was in a deep blue seat. In the former, the Republican candidate Mike Carey won by 17, outperforming Trump’s 2020 margin by only three and actually finishing 10 points lower than the former Republican representative who won the seat in 2020. The 11th district, which Biden won by 61 points in 2020, told a very similar story, as Democrat Shontel Brown won by 58. In both cases, the congressional margin was about three points worse for Democrats than the Presidential margin of the previous year, painting a much rosier picture for the party than the Gubernatorial results. 

Of course, it’s impossible to know how much two low-turnout special elections in a single state can indicate about the entire country, but there are reasons for Democrats to hope they’re more accurate predictors than Virginia and New Jersey. In the nation’s last odd-numbered year that had a special election, 2019, Democrats won Governor’s mansions in Kentucky and Louisiana, and barely lost in Mississippi. In these three races, Democrats outperformed their 2016 Presidential results by 30, 22 and and 13, respectively. Yet in 2018 and 2020, although Democrats improved on their 2016 performance by approximately 9% and 2.5%, they did not do so at nearly the same level as they managed to in 2019. The point is, Governor’s elections routinely have unique dynamics, such as a particularly popular candidate or a controversial incumbent, and are often not indicative of national political dynamics. In 2016, Trump won Kentucky by 30. In 2019 his party lost the Governor’s race, and then in 2020 he won it again by 26. In 2019, when Andy Beshear won in Kentucky, few analysts called it the demise of the Republican party, which was appropriate, even though Democrats seemed to be held to a different standard in 2021. So if national politics cannot fully explain the Virginia and New Jersey elections results, what can?

The answer is likely local politics unique to both of these states, particularly the rising progressiveness in their statehouses in recent years. Virginia only recently became an all-blue state, as the State House and State Senate flipped in 2019 to give Democrats a governing trifecta with control of the Governor’s Mansion. New Jersey became a Democratic trifecta in 2018 after winning the Governor’s race four years ago. Because of how recently both states became Democratic, the urgency Democrats felt to use their political power when they could, and the ascending strength of the national progressive movement, both states passed a number of progressive policies in the past few years. Backlash to these policies could have contributed to the Democrats’ disappointing performance in November. 

In Virginia in just the past few months, Democrats passed laws to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, address climate change, roll back abortion restrictions, increase the rights of undocumented immigrants, increase voting rights and imopse new restrictions on guns. After many years of Republican control of state government, many Democrats felt like this flurry of progressive legislation was appropriate and overdue. Still, for moderates who put Democrats in power out of frustration with Trump, all these rapidly-passed progressive policies may have seemed like too much, and not the stability they thought they were voting for regardless of the merits of each individual bill. One Republican lawmaker, for example, called Democrats’ law-making a “jewelry store smash and grab” and predicted a massive red-wave in the election. Virginia’s stretch of progressive policy-making was especially unusual given how frequently the state swings back and forth between the two parties. Often, in more purple states, the party in power takes a moderate approach to governing in hopes to continue to hold onto power. Virginia Democrats, on the other hand, seemingly tried to use their temporary political power to pass as many progressive laws as they could before losing that power.

New Jersey was a slightly different story, since Democrats likely felt more secure in their power in the Biden +16 state. Nevertheless, the state has recently passed bills to legalize marijuana, make community college free, expand early voting, raise the minimum wage and more. Each of these laws, as well as the combination of them all, may have led to conservative backlash against Democrats in the 2021 election. That fact, of course, does not mean that Democrats were wrong to use their power to pass progressive legislation. 

Those who saw the November election results as a backlash against progressive Democrats may have been partially correct, but the backlash was likely more local to Virginia and New Jersey. In Ohio, which has complete Republican governance, there was a much smaller shift against Democrats compared to 2020. This idea may give hope to national Democrats as they look forward to the 2022 congressional elections. 

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