So much for the hope that the Jan. 6 mob attack on their country’s citadel of democracy taught Americans a lesson. It was only 10 months ago that hard right thugs, goaded by Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol threatening to overturn a legitimate election.
But instead of Americans turning their backs on the Trump party, the first big electoral test since that day of infamy has them embracing it.
In Virginia, a state the Democrats won by a handsome 10 percentage points just a year ago, a state just a stone’s throw from the Capitol, the Democrats fell and the Republicans flew, with businessman Glenn Youngkin capturing the governorship in a race deemed a harbinger of political fortunes to follow.
Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe made the election a referendum on Mr. Trump. He thought it would be the winning ticket. But the result showed that the ugly American isn’t the one scaring away voters. Rather it’s a Democratic President who wanted to restore normalcy and decency and honour.
“All McAuliffe did was talk Trump, Trump, Trump and he lost!” crowed Mr. Trump as the Virginia tally came in. “What does that tell you, fake news? I guess people running for office as Democrats won’t be doing that too much longer.”
In the other big gubernatorial race, the one for the New Jersey governorship, the Democrats were supposed to win handily, but come Wednesday morning the race was still too close to call.
These results strengthen Mr. Trump’s already firm hold on the Republican Party heading into the midterm elections a year from now.
President Joe Biden, who confidently predicted victory on election eve, has been dealt a harsh setback as has the progressive wing of his party. As strategist David Axelrod pointed out, many elected members and candidates will be having second thoughts about the Democratic Party’s direction, this at a very sensitive time with Mr. Biden needing every vote he can muster in order to get crucial trillion-dollar legislation on infrastructure and the social safety net passed in the House.
Mr. Youngkin, a career investment manager with a net worth estimated at more than US$400-million, spent more than US$20-million of his own fortune on his campaign. He received the full-throated support of Mr. Trump, and in turn declared early in the campaign that Mr. Trump “represents so much of why I’m running.”
Mr. McAuliffe, who served as a quite popular governor from 2014 to 2018, jumped at what he thought was an opening. “Think about that,” he said. “After Trump praised neo-Nazis who attacked Charlottesville as ‘very fine people.’ After Trump incited a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. After all the racism and the hate and the lies, after all that, Glenn Youngkin says Donald Trump represents why he is running for governor.”
But Mr. Youngkin, trying to appeal to moderates in the state as well as culture warriors, was careful not to draw too close to the former president. He didn’t invite him to campaign in the state.
The big statewide issue was education, with Mr. Youngkin scoring with voters by pushing parental rights. He opposed the teaching of racial history (critical race theory) and cast Mr. McAuliffe as a tool of teachers’ unions.
The Democrats were hurt by the rising cost of living, by the prolonged pandemic, by Mr. Biden’s failure to get major legislation passed. In trying to install his far-reaching progressive agenda, Mr. Biden has been thwarted by a couple of his own party members.
As his support fell throughout the year, so did Mr. McAuliffe’s. That’s the way of American politics now. There is very little ticket-splitting.
In New Jersey, which is typically Democratic, Mr. Biden beat Mr. Trump by no less than 16 percentage points last November. Democrats knew the Virginia result would be tight, but hoped a big Garden State win by incumbent governor Phil Murphy would soften the impact if Mr. McAuliffe lost. Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, who attended a Trump “stop the steal” rally following the presidential election, didn’t let that happen.
Many observers see the results as a bellwether for the midterm elections. That may not be the case. A year is a long time in politics and the months ahead will no doubt feature many unforeseeable turns.
But Tuesday put a stamp on the distressing year it’s been for the Biden Democrats. After the desecration of the Capitol on Jan. 6, the Republicans were supposed to be in crisis. The Democrats appeared to have a clear field ahead. The country appeared to want a fresh start.
It sure doesn’t look that way now.
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