By Michael Barone
President Joe Biden returned the morning of Nov. 3 to a nation that no longer supports him or his party.
Virginia, which he carried 55% to 44% in 2020, has elected Republican Glenn Youngkin as governor, Republicans for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and recaptured a majority in the House of Delegates.
Even more startlingly, in New Jersey, which Biden carried 57% to 41%, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy is currently leading Republican Jack Ciattarelli by about 29,000 votes, with a few more to be counted. New Jersey, as part of the New York and Philadelphia media markets, has long been a low-information state politically, and Murphy seems headed to the 50.5% he’s been averaging in polls, with the rest all going to his little-known ex-legislator challenger.
Some Democrats did win. Eric Adams was easily elected mayor of New York City (76% Biden), and Democrats captured a state House district (population 8,333) in Maine.
But that’s about all the good news for the party that one year ago won the Electoral College by 42,000 popular votes and congressional majorities of 51-50 and 222-213. Geographically, Republican wins ranged from a Supreme Court seat in marginal Pennsylvania to a pickup in a 72% Hispanic Texas state House district (population 164,436) that is 72% Hispanic to a city council seat in immigrant-heavy Brooklyn and Queens.
The Democrats’ “progressive” wing fared especially poorly. Voters in Minneapolis (86% Biden), where George Floyd died in May 2020, rejected a ballot proposition to replace the police force with a “public safety” department by 56% to 44%. So much for defunding the police. And in Buffalo (80% Biden), socialist Democratic primary winner India Walton was beaten by write-in votes for the incumbent mayor she had defeated for the nomination, 59% to 41%. So much for socialism.
The results in Virginia and elsewhere are, as Cook Political’s David Wasserman tweeted at 9:34 p.m. Eastern, “consistent w/ a political environment in which Republicans would comfortably take back both the House and the Senate in 2022.” In an environment where Donald Trump is no longer the central figure, despite Terry McAuliffe’s constant mentions of him, Youngkin managed to improve on Trump’s numbers with noncollege-graduate white voters while making substantial inroads in affluent suburbs.
Republican victories came despite—actually, because of—two supposedly disabling trends. One is that turnout was up 27% over the last governor race in Virginia, and at least 11% in New Jersey. The rise was 30% to 40% in exurban areas heavy with young families, but only 10% or less in central cities with many minorities and hip singles.
The other trend is that the Virginia race was fought out over cultural issues. Youngkin seized on McAuliffe’s Sept. 29 debate statement, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” That’s holy writ among teachers union members and school administrators, who believe they have special expertise in enlightening the children of backward parents.
But in the Virginia exit poll, 84% said that parents should have a lot of or some say in what schools teach, and only 13% said little or none. And after teachers unions shut down schools for months (a full year in Fairfax County, the nation’s 11th largest school district), parents have gotten a better view of the sexually explicit materials that supposed experts have put in the hands of even grade schoolers.
Similarly, Youngkin was not afraid to criticize public schools’ use of materials championing critical race theory—the idea that whites are irremediably racist. Children should learn the good and the bad about our history, he said, and to judge others by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
That predictably prompted charges of racism. Barack Obama, campaigning for McAuliffe, insisted, “We don’t have time to be wasting on these phony, trumped-up culture wars.” Youngkin, he said, was avoiding “serious problems that actually affect serious people.”
But for parents, the education of their children is a serious matter, not a “phony, trumped-up” issue. More generally, cultural issues are more important to Americans, on both sides of the cultural divide, than economics. Although Biden Democrats have argued their economic policies would help the little guy, an ABC/Ipsos poll found that only 25% believe his reconciliation bill would help people like them, while 32% say they would hurt.
That leaves nearly half, 43%, not seeing much difference. A similarly pervasive skepticism explains polls showing majorities against passing Obamacare in 2010 and against repealing Obamacare in 2018. In contrast, attitudes on cultural issues are more firmly rooted in personal experience and moral principles.
Liberals and progressives are vulnerable on cultural issues because their search for the latest underdog cause to champion, while sometimes producing results widely accepted, sometimes puts them in lasting opposition to large majorities of voters. That’s what happened in Virginia. The advice of Democrats’ MSNBC and CNN cheering squads—to double down on accusing voters of racism—is not helpful. So, for the moment at least, and possibly into 2022 and 2024, the nation Biden returned to in the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 3 no longer supports him or his party.
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