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Why leftward lurch in Richmond was a misreading of the Old Dominion’s electorate, leading to Tuesday’s political catastrophe
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
RICHMOND (CFP) — Heading into Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, the Republicans’ theory of the case was that they could ride a backlash against two years of total Democratic rule in Richmond back into power – that voters in the suburbs were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
The results, if anything, may have understated the case’s potency.
Before Tuesday, Democrats held all three statewide offices and majorities in the House of Delegates and Senate. Come January, all they will have left is a one-seat margin in the Senate, where a defection from a single Democratic senator will create a tie to be broken by the new Republican lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears.
In other words, every Virginia senator can play Joe Manchin – and Democratic senators hoping to win re-election in 2023 may find it in their political interests to cooperate with Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin.
Since the Democrats’ debacle in the Old Dominion, the chattering class has been busy theorizing that the inability of Democrats in Washington to push through President Joe Biden’s domestic spending agenda is to blame. But there is a deeper, much more local, reason for what happened.
Virginia is not nearly as “woke” as Democrats had convinced themselves that it was, and they are now paying the price.
In 2019, Democrats took control of all of the levers of power in Richmond for the first time in a quarter century – and they proceeded to go off on what can only be described as a liberal toot.
Marijuana legalized. Death penalty abolished. Police chokeholds and no knock warrants gone. Background checks for gun purchases imposed. LGBTQ discrimination protections enacted. Confederate monuments removed. Waiting periods and ultrasounds before abortions eliminated. Voting rules eased.
Inexplicably, they even reached back into the 1970s to dust off the Equal Rights Amendment and ratify it – a purely symbolic gesture that will have no actual impact on policy, as its ratification deadline expired nearly 30 years ago.
The one person who might have stopped this march to the left was Governor Ralph Northam, but he was busy hanging on to his job in the face a scandal over wearing blackface in medical school that caused many in his own party to abandon him. He firmly jumped on board the leftward train.
Democrats would no doubt argue that all of those reforms they enacted were necessary, even righteous. But Virginia is still, well, Virginia — a generally conservative place populated by conventional suburban people, many of whom didn’t take kindly to being governed as if they were living in Seattle.
Whether from hubris or cluelessness, Virginia Democrats fundamentally – and fatally — misread their electorate.
The most fiery issue in the recent campaign was critical race theory, which Youngkin vowed to eradicate from public schools, even though it is not being taught in any public school in the commonwealth.
Democrats denounced Youngkin’s crusade as factually unfounded, silly and racist. But what they didn’t understand was that critical race theory was actually shorthand proxy for another concern of many parents – that teachers and schools were delving, or preparing to delve, into discussions of race and sexuality in the classroom in pursuit of a more just, tolerant society.
On Tuesday, many of these parents made it clear that they do not believe those topics are appropriate in schools, even in pursuit of admirable ends. Full stop. And they were prepared to reward Youngkin for his opposition, couched as it was in criticism of critical race theory that is taught in graduate schools, not kindergartens.
Republicans have struck a nerve here that will echo into next year’s midterms; Democrats need to come up with a counternarrative, rather than simply dismissing this heartfelt sentiment as irrelevant or racist.
Virginia Democrats’ last rampart against Republican rule is their 21-member Senate caucus, all of whom are all up for election in 2023 in a political climate they now know to be unfavorable. Their number includes Joe Morrissey, a colorful, unpredictable lawmaker from Richmond who opposes legal abortion, and Chap Petersen, a moderate from Fairfax who supports gun rights.
In other words, not much of a rampart with which to go scorched earth on Youngkin.
The statewide offices are out of Democratic hands until at least 2026, which means any comeback will need to be in legislative races.
The bright spot for Democrats in this regard is that new House and Senate maps will be drawn before the next election in 2023. Because of population growth, more seats will need to be located in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where Democrats dominate, shifting some power away from more Republican areas.
Given that Republicans only have a two-seat House majority, and Democrats a single-seat majority in the Senate, those new maps could have a significant impact on party legislative control. And because the newly created bipartisan redistricting commission has imploded, those maps are likely to be drawn by the state Supreme Court, where partisan gerrymandering will be limited.
But even if Virginia Democrats hold their own in 2023, the total control they enjoyed for the past two years won’t come back for at least the next four – and at that point, they might do well to remember Kipling’s admonition: “We have had no end of a lesson, it will do us no end of good.”