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Politics & Government

What happened in last night's elections — and what it means for Democrats

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last night was rough for Democrats.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Democrats are waking up. This is a gut punch.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: This is not good news for President Biden.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: There is no doubt that alarm bells are going off.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Democrats have to figure out, how are they talking to these voters in 2022?

CORNISH: The president's party lost the governor's mansion in Virginia to a first-time Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin.

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GLENN YOUNGKIN: Together, we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth.

CORNISH: In New Jersey, the Democratic governor who was projected to win easily barely eked out a victory. Meanwhile, a ballot measure to reform policing in Minneapolis failed. And ballot measures aimed at increasing voting access in New York are likely to fail. Now, to understand the context around what happened and what it could mean for a Democratic Party still struggling to deliver on President Biden's domestic priorities, we turn to NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson...

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.

CORNISH: ...And our congressional correspondent, Kelsey Snell. Welcome to you.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Mara, I'm going to start with you because I remember when Obama - President Obama winning Virginia in 2008 was a big deal because he had flipped the state from red to blue. What does last night tell us about whether this is once again a swing state?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question. You know, we joke that historical rules only work till they stop working, but this time, they actually worked because in Virginia - Virginia has a long history of electing governors of the opposite party than the one in the White House. But the reason, as you said, that last night was such a big shock to Democrats is because they believed that Virginia had ceased to be a swing state. It had been so long since a Republican won statewide for anything.

Joe Biden won the state by 10 points. Turns out, Virginia is still purple. And yes, there's a big danger in overanalyzing this single off-year election. But the most important thing to remember is that Terry McAuliffe did turn out his base. He got 200,000 more votes than Ralph Northam did in 2017. This was a very high turnout election. But Glenn Youngkin won because he not only turned out his base, but he also was able to persuade suburban voters - Trump Biden voters - to come back to the GOP. And the fact that this was a persuasion election, as well as turnout, that's what's giving Democrats so much to really soul search about today.

CORNISH: Kelsey, I know Mara said that we should not overanalyze, but I'm sure Democrats on Capitol Hill are not taking that advice. What's going on?

SNELL: Well, progressives are grumbling that they feel like, to some degree, the failure was in picking a moderate candidate who failed to drum up real excitement to bring out people who were not necessarily easy Dem base voters and reach people who were looking for a candidate that spoke to them. You know, Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, who is currently a senator but was once governor of the state, argued the exact opposite. Essentially, he said that a Democrat can't win in Virginia and statewide if they're too progressive. And you can't win in rural counties unless they're meeting - you know, without meeting 20% in rural counties. And they can't win by obstructing all of the policy goals of the president from their own party.

He also said that he thinks Democrats in Washington aren't doing enough to convince voters that they can actually deliver on any of the promises that they make. He used the stalled bipartisan infrastructure bill as an example of a policy that would spend a trillion dollars in people's communities but is stuck in Congress because progressives are using it as leverage to press for, you know, more agreement from moderates on social spending. Here is how he described it.

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MARK WARNER: For the last 60-plus days, we've had something sitting there ready to be passed - 69 votes in the Senate. I get asked about this every day in Virginia. When are you going to get that done? And it's not just the substance of the bill, but it's showing that you can govern in a way that affects people's lives.

CORNISH: This conversation between moderates and progressives is just getting louder and louder, right?

SNELL: Yeah.

CORNISH: I mean, what does this mean for President Biden's actual political agenda?

SNELL: Well, I mean, there's a ton of pressure for Democrats to move forward. We saw earlier this week that Joe Manchin from West Virginia was getting so frustrated about the stalled infrastructure bill that he called a press conference basically to chastise progressives. It's kind of turning into a circular firing squad, with both sides claiming that they're the ones who back the policies that will get voters to turn out and vote for Democrats. But everyone - every single Democrat I've talked to - agrees that they need to actually pass bills. They need to do something. But they're really stuck on some basic issues, like how to pay for all of the spending they want to do.

CORNISH: Mara, I want to come back to something in Virginia because a persistent talking point is that the Youngkin campaign had made this promise to ban critical race theory in schools. This has become kind of a catchall term for activists who dislike the way systemic racism is discussed in grade schools. How do you think it played into the victory?

LIASSON: Yeah, even though critical race theory is not taught in Virginia schools. But look. Race has been a feature of Republican campaigns for our entire lives, whether it's bussing or crime or affirmative action or Mexican rapists coming over the border. Now it's critical race theory, which is something that most people can't define. Virginia school leaders say it's not taught in Virginia schools. But it's become a buzzword and a catchall for how kids are taught about racism in a way that some white parents don't like.

But don't forget, this was also in the context of COVID. Fairfax County Public Schools had been shut down for 18 months. Parents were really fed up. They were fed up with the school closings, with mask mandates. And the critical race theory just fit into all that. The big question for Democrats is, what do they do going forward? Do they just dismiss these kinds of attacks, say they're fake or they're racist dog whistles or bullhorns? Or do they decide it's a serious enough problem that they need an answer for?

Now, next year in the midterms, these are federal elections for Congress, House and Senate. Education is a local issue. It's not run by Washington. So it's hard to say if this is going to resonate. But I do think the Republicans are going to say, we are the party of parents.

CORNISH: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and our congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Thanks to you both.

SNELL: Thanks for having us.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.