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Wake Up To Politics - November 4, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: Six takeaways from Tuesday’s elections
Wake Up To Politics - November 4, 2021

Good morning! It’s Thursday, November 4, 2021. Election Day 2024 is 1,098 days away. Election Day 2022 is 370 days away.

Analysis: Six takeaways for Democrats after Tuesday’s elections

Almost across the board in Tuesday’s elections, voters sent a clear message that has been reverberating across Washington this week: Democrats are in trouble. They lost all three statewide offices, plus the House of Delegates, in Virginia, and struggled to keep the governorship in deep-blue New Jersey. Analysts are already downgrading their chances of holding on to the U.S. Senate next year.

None of this should be too surprising. Political scientists have long regarded public opinion in the United States to be thermostatic, noticing that when voters hand control of the White House and Congress to one party, they generally turn around and vote for the other party in the next election cycle. That’s why presidents since FDR have lost an average of 29 U.S. House seats in midterm elections, and it’s why the incumbent president’s party tends to lose the Virginia off-year gubernatorial election, as happened on Tuesday.

Still, though, Democratic leaders have spent the past few months claiming they were set to buck those trends, and some polls earlier this year did suggest they might. So I do think it’s worth analyzing what went wrong for the Democrats this week, as the party scrambles to rework its messaging and strategy ahead of next year’s midterms.

Before I dive in, I should note that it can be tricky sometimes to draw too sweeping of conclusions from off-year elections, since there is such a smaller sample size of voters. But I do think many of the takeaways below are supported not just by the Virginia race, but by other 2021 elections too, as well as by the results from 2020. So I think they’re worth taking seriously, even if you also take them with a grain of salt.

All that said, here are some of my key takeaways from the 2021 elections and what they tell us about the state of American politics right now:

1. High turnout doesn’t equal Democratic success. It has long been taken as fact in Democratic circles — and some Republican circles, too — that higher-turnout elections benefit Democrats. That alleged truism has been a big part of what has animated both parties in the fight over voting laws that has raged all year long.

But the truism isn’t true: Just like the 2020 election, when Democrats still lost ground in the House despite record-high turnout, Terry McAuliffe lost the Virginia governorship on Tuesday with 5 million more votes than when he won it in 2013. The problem wasn’t that the Democratic base stayed home; they did turn out in high numbers. But that wasn’t enough for a victory, as many strategists once believed. Because Republicans turned out just much, and also persuaded former Democratic voters to come along with them.

Turnout soared on Tuesday. It didn’t help Democrats. CNBC graphic

2. The suburbs were rented. A lot of that persuasion happened in the Virginia suburbs, which joined similar areas nationwide in breaking with the Republican Party during the Trump era. But it doesn’t seem like Democratic dominance in the suburbs was meant to last: Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory was fueled by support from the precise suburban voters Democrats thought they had converted over to their fold. (The same was true of the GOP near-win in New Jersey.) As some analysts have put it, Democrats hadn’t secured a long-term lease on those key voters after all. They’d merely rented them.

Democrats’ renewed struggles in the suburbs is particularly threatening to them because the Virginia and New Jersey elections showed no signs that Republican strength was waning in rural areas. In fact, rural areas only got redder. If rural areas are slipping away even more, and the suburbs are no longer frmly in their grasp, that makes for a highly worrisome combination for the Democratic Party.

Both suburban and rural parts of Virginia moved in the Republican direction on Tuesday. Reuters graphic

3. Democrats can’t just run on Trump. Tuesday’s elections were one of the first opportunities to see how the two parties would perform in a post-Trump political environment. Youngkin’s victory gives Republicans a playbook for how to walk the tightrope of praising Trump without embracing him — as well as a reminder that non-Trump Republicans tend to outperform him in competitive areas. (I wonder if that’s a lesson Republicans will remember come 2024.)

McAuliffe’s campaign, on the other hand, served as a lesson for Democrats that their message can no longer be all Trump, all the time. Blasting Trump (and tying Youngkin to the former president) was a centerpiece of the Democratic nominee’s messaging; the specter of Trump may have worked for Democrats while he was in office but it no longer seems to be enough to motivate suburban voters to back their candidates. (Again, it remains an open question how long this will hold true, as Trump floats a return to politics in 2024.)

4. Republicans can run on parents and schools. While Democrats’ Trump-heavy message fell flat in the suburbs, the GOP seems to have found an issue that struck a chord: promising parents more say over what their kids are learning in schools. This isn’t just about Critical Race Theory, the academic framework that has become a national flashpoint: there were a constellation of issues at play here, including Covid school closures and changes to accelerated programs.

But the bottom line is an issue that has generally helped Democrat — education — hurt them in Virginia, with polls showing voters who cared more about education leaned towards Youngkin and the electorate at large trusted him more on education. It’s too early to know if that trend sticks (McAuliffe made a debate-night gaffe that turned the issue into a particular liability for him), but Republicans nationwide are already leaning hard into it. GOP leaders are strategizing about becoming “the party of parents” and drafting a “Parents Bill of Rights,” so expect to be hearing more about these issues (and the rise of the “school board voter”) in the weeks and months ahead.

Exit polls showed a stark divide when it came to parental say over education. Washington Post graphic

5. Racial politics are changing. Maybe. This one is a bit up in the air. We know from the 2020 election that Democrats are faltering among Latino voters. Did the same thing happen in Virginia? It depends on who you ask. AP VoteCast (the exit poll used by many news organizations) found Youngkin winning Latinos by a 12-point margin, while Edison Research (which is used by TV networks) says the demographic went for McAuliffe by 34 points.

A lot of that divide is due to low response rates among a demographic that is already relatively small in Virginia, so it’s hard to say which party did better with Latinos on Tuesday (and keep that in mind if you see either side claiming they did). But it’s another trend that’s worth keeping in the back of your mind to test again in future elections — especially after a state House race in a Latino-heavy area of Texas offered another data point showing Republicans gaining ground among the group.

6. “Defund the police” can be a damaging political message. This one isn’t about Virginia, but it’s another noteworthy trend from Tuesday’s elections. More than one candidate or cause associated with the call to “defund the police” fell short: in Seattle, for example, a police abolitionist Democrat lost a race for city attorney, leading to the first Republican winning citywide office there in three decades. Likewise, in Minneapolis, a closely-watched referendum to replace the city’s police department with a Department of Public Safety was defeated.

Meanwhile, a pro-police candidate won the mayoralty in Seattle, while Minneapolis re-elected a mayor who had clashed with anti-police activists. To be sure, there were also counter-examples on Tuesday (like the rejection of a ballot measure in Austin that would have increased the number of police officers). But the outcomes in Seattle and Minneapolis are likely to cause waves throughout the Democratic Party, as debates continue over whether “defund the police” has hurt the party’s overall brand — especially in the aforementioned suburbs. (Are you sensing a theme?)

And finally, one that I’m not sure about. Did Democrats in Washington hurt McAuliffe by not moving on Biden’s agenda?

I’m not sold on this one, just because I’m not sure how much of a boost (or credit) McAuliffe would have gotten if the infrastructure and spending packages would have passed before Election Day.

I’ll tell you one thing that’s clear, though. Democratic lawmakers sure think their inaction played a role. “Congressional Dems hurt Terry McAuliffe,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told reporters on Wednesday. “I mean, I’m going to be blunt. It’s humbling to say it. But if we had been able to deliver Infrastructure and reconciliation in mid-October, he could have sold [those policies].”

President Biden, whose tumbling approval ratings likely didn’t help McAuliffe either, had a similar takeaway. “What I do know is, I do know that people want us to get things done,” Biden said when asked about the Virginia outcome.

And so while the studies on thermostatic politics that I cited above might call for Democrats to put the breaks on their sweeping spending agenda, they’re putting the feet on the gas instead. In fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is signaling that the one or both of the two bills that have been looming over Washington for months now may receive a vote today.

The renewed scramble to usher the legislation to Biden’s desk shows Democrats have taken in at least one lesson from Tuesday: their time in the driver’s seat in Washington may be running out.

More headlines to know

— “U.S. passes grim milestone of 750,000 COVID-19 deaths” The Hill

— “Senate Republicans block debate on a third major voting rights bill” Washington Post

— “Paid leave, immigration, tax changes added to Biden bill” Associated Press

—  “Biden says payments to families separated at the Mexico border are ‘not gonna happen’” Wall Street Journal

— “Authorities arrest analyst who contributed to Steele dossier” New York Times

Flags on the National Mall marking the number of COVID-19 victims. Photo via In America

Policy Roundup: Legal

By Wake Up To Politics legal contributor Anna Salvatore.

In oral arguments on Wednesday, the Supreme Court leaned towards expanding the scope of the Second Amendment. The justices considered a New York law that limits gun-carrying in public, with prospective gun-toters having to show “proper cause” before they can obtain a license. Several of the justices suggested that the law was unconstitutional. “Why do you have to convince somebody that you’re entitled to exercise your Second Amendment right?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts. In response, New York attorney Brian Fletcher argued that it was incorrect to compare the Second Amendment to other amendments in the Bill of Rights, each of which have their own histories and language.

Then the justices moved through a list of potentially “sensitive” places, like a college campus or city square, and debated whether the state could limit open-carry in each location. The lawyer for the gun-owners, Paul Clement, seemingly spoke for the Court when he said that New York can limit weapons in “sensitive places.” What that means, though, will be an open question until the Court releases its final opinion.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood argues before the Supreme Court in the abortion case on Wednesday. Sketch by Art Lien

The Supreme Court also hinted on Monday that it would allow abortion providers to challenge Texas’s new law in federal court. The law, widely known as Senate Bill 8, has practically eliminated abortion access in Texas by banning most procedures after six weeks. As Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed out in Monday’s oral arguments, the law was designed with a loophole as well: because private citizens (and not state officials) are responsible for suing abortion patients, any resulting lawsuits can only be heard in state courts. “The question becomes… should we close that loophole,” asked Kavanaugh, and allow Texans to challenge the law in federal court?

To a majority of his colleagues, the answer was “yes.” Referring to the law as “extremely unusual,” Justice Elena Kagan suggested that Texas had violated “the broader principle that states are not to nullify federal constitutional rights.” If Texans can only challenge the law through state courts, she added, there would be a “chilling effect” on their right to seek abortions. Based on their comments and questions, Justice Amy Coney Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts shared that skepticism about Senate Bill 8, meaning that the Supreme Court will likely allow legal challenges to continue in federal court. But that doesn’t mean abortion is vanishing from the Court’s docket: it will consider next month whether a Misssissippi abortion law is constitutional.


All times Eastern.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive their daily intelligence briefing at 10 a.m. Neither has any other items on their public schedules.

First Lady Jill Biden will deliver remarks at the White House Historical Association’s 60th anniversary gala in New York City at 7:45 p.m.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold a press briefing at 2 p.m. Jean-Pierre is filling in for White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who is quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.

The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. and continue consideration of Biden nominees. At 11 a.m., the chamber will hold a confirmation vote on Michael Connor’s nomination to be Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, followed by a cloture vote to advance Robert Santos’ nomination to be Director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

At 1:45 p.m., the Senate will vote on Santos’ confirmation. He would be the first person of color to oversee the decennial census, which has frequently been accused of undercounting non-white Americans.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on the “road ahead for the COVID-19 response,” featuring testimony from Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock.

The House will convene at 10 a.m. The chamber may vote today on one or both of the two major pieces of legislation making up President Biden’s domestic agenda: H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package), and H.R. 5376, the Build Back Better Act (the $1.85 trillion social spending package).

The chamber is also slated to vote on H.R. 3992, the Protect Older Job Applicants Act of 2021, and vote under “suspension of the rules” on eight additional pieces of legislation:

  1. H.R. 1917, the Hazard Eligibility and Local Projects Act
  2. H.R. 1339, the Advanced Air Mobility Coordination and Leadership Act
  3. H.R. 3193, the E-BRIDGE Act
  4. H.R. 3709, the Preliminary Damage Assessment Improvement Act of 2021
  5. H.R. 2220, to amend title 40, United States Code, to modify the treatment of certain bargain-price options to purchase at less than fair market value
  6. H.R. 390, to redesignate the Federal Building located at 167 North Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee as the “Odell Horton Federal Building”
  7. H.R. 4679, to designate the Federal building located at 1200 New Jersey Avenue Southeast in Washington, DC, as the “Norman Yoshio Mineta Federal Building”
  8. H.R. 4660, to designate the Federal building and United States Courthouse located at 1125 Chapline Street in Wheeling, West Virginia, as the “Frederick P. Stamp, Jr. Federal Building and United States Courthouse”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her weekly press conference at 10:45 a.m., during which she could possibly give clues on her plans for the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Democratic spending package, which could receive votes today.

Pelosi will also hold a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony for Reps.-elect Shontel Brown (D-OH) and Mike Carey (R-OH), who both won special elections to fill vacant House seats on Tuesday, at 3:10 p.m.

The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on the impact of SB 8, the Texas bill effectively banning abortions in the state after six weeks of pregnancy.

COURTS The Supreme Court is not scheduled to meet today.