Frustrated Democrats blamed each other and President Biden on Wednesday after the party’s devastating losses in Virginia and a too-close-to-call race for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy that was supposed to be a cakewalk.
The victory by Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in Virginia raised questions for Mr. Biden and allies, who have failed to deliver big-spending results for their base and now risk losing the House and the Senate next year.
Mr. Biden said Wednesday that “I was running against Donald Trump” in the election, appearing to make a remarkable concession that his predecessor beat him in their proxy battle in Virginia. Mr. Trump endorsed Mr. Youngkin, while the president campaigned in person for the losing Democrat, Terry McAuliffe.
The president said he didn’t know whether Mr. McAuliffe would have won if Congress had passed his spending bills before Election Day, as some Democrats have argued.
“I’m not sure that I would be able to have changed the number of very conservative folks who turned out in the red districts who were Trump voters,” Mr. Biden said.
But he agreed that Democratic voters are frustrated about his stalled agenda in Congress.
“People want us to get things done,” the president said. “People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things, from COVID to school to jobs to … the cost of a gallon of gasoline. People need a little breathing room, they’re overwhelmed. We have to just produce results for them to change their standard of living.”
Republicans said the election showed that voters have rejected the Biden agenda. And GOP leaders in Congress moved quickly to focus the 2022 midterm campaign on the potent issue of parental control in schools, a key factor in the Virginia elections.
One of the most alarming developments for Democrats — and encouraging for the GOP — took place in Virginia’s suburbs, where Republicans won back thousands of voters who had supported Democrats in 2020. Mr. Youngkin won suburban counties by 6 percentage points over Mr. McAuliffe, a year after Mr. Biden won the same territories by 8 points.
“We lost a lot of suburban voters who voted for us in the past,” said Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and a former governor.
His colleague in the state, Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, blamed the party’s inability to agree on the president’s multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and social welfare bills before Election Day. Mr. Kaine said delivering programs such as universal pre-kindergarten classes and paid family leave would have given Mr. McAuliffe a strong boost in a close race.
“Dems blew the timing,” Mr. Kaine said. “I hope my colleagues absorb this notion that when you’re the majority, the ‘D’ in Democrats should stand for ‘do-er,’ not delay, dithering, do-nothing division.”
House Democratic leaders signaled they won’t change their strategy in the push for the president’s agenda ahead of the 2022 elections.
“I think we have a very good agenda that is going to be very appealing to the American people,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “And I think that would be a very solid platform on which to run. So I think we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Rep. Jim Banks, Indiana Republican and chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee, expressed surprise that Democrats were “doubling down” on their strategy instead of moving “back to the center.”
“If that’s the case, then I really do believe we’re going to win more seats than anybody could have imagined [in 2022],” he told The Washington Times. “It’s going to be bigger than the Tea Party wave in 2010. We’re going to see a rejection of Democrats and Joe Biden in a big way, just like we saw in Virginia last night, in 2022.”
Others attributed the party’s weak performance to Mr. Biden’s low job-approval ratings, which have dropped roughly 10 points since early summer to around 43%. During that time, inflation has reached a 30-year high, consumers have confronted widespread shortages, and the administration botched a hasty withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan.
“I don’t think the Republicans themselves did anything to improve the party brand,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “They were successful [on Tuesday] because they literally watched Democrats light themselves on fire for the past 10 months.”
He also said former President Donald Trump helped Republican candidates by providing a road map of “America First” working-class issues.
The issue of parental control in education also played an important role in the Virginia races. Mr. Youngkin effectively portrayed Mr. McAuliffe as beholden to teachers’ unions and dismissive of parents’ concerns about mask policies, remote learning, the potential teaching of critical race theory, and highly publicized sexual assaults in two Loudoun County schools.
The resulting stormy school board meetings in Loudoun contributed to a warning by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland that the FBI would investigate threats of violence against school officials. That also bolstered Mr. Youngkin’s argument that Democrats were not on the side of parents.
House Republican leaders showed on Wednesday that they intend to follow Mr. Youngkin’s education-centric lead in the 2022 midterm elections. They held a meeting with parents, students and education advocates led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California.
Republicans are crafting a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” Mr. McCarthy said, “so parents do have a say in what goes on. It’s fundamental.”
Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the top Republican on the House Education and the Labor Committee, said the president’s $1.75 trillion social welfare bill “gives the federal government control over education.”
“If you have a federal takeover of education, what you’re going to have are drag queen story hours instead of Madeline,” she said. “You’re going to have ‘Thanks-taking’ instead of Thanksgiving. You’re going to have the Pledge of Allegiance to the progressive flag instead of to the American flag.”
Mr. Banks said in a memo to GOP lawmakers that “the concerns of parents need to be a tier 1 policy issue for Republicans.”
“Youngkin’s success reveals that Republicans can and must become the party of parents,” Mr. Banks wrote. “There is real energy from parents that we need to understand.”
He released a list of planned actions including rescinding Mr. Biden’s “harmful Title IX guidance that hurts girls dreams to achieve excellence in sports.” The administration last summer expanded its interpretation of federal sex protections to include transgender and gay students, reversing a Trump-era policy to bar transgender girls from school sports.
The list also includes passing measures to promote “a fair and accurate historical curriculum based on the success and faults of our country’s founding,” and to ensure that military schools are not teaching critical race theory.
“Glenn Youngkin is the first candidate’s campaign against critical race theory in America, and he won… in a blue state and a place where Joe Biden won by 10%,” Mr. Banks said in an interview.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle said local elections nationwide on Tuesday largely turned away efforts to recall school board members.
“While much of the attention has focused on Glenn Youngkin’s efforts to stop students from learning the truth in school or his support for banning authors such as Toni Morrison from the classroom, Youngkin’s campaign blanketed the Commonwealth with TV ads talking about how he will ‘increase teacher pay’ and ‘pass the largest education budget in history,’” she said. “Educators and parents will be watching, continuing our advocacy, and holding him accountable for his promises.”
Heading into the 2022 elections, she said, candidates “must stand with parents and educators in supporting student success in our public schools and oppose those who want to ban books or remove information about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ruby Bridges from our school,” she said. In 1960 at age 6, Ms. Bridges was the first Black student to attend an all-white school in New Orleans.
In Southlake, Texas, on Tuesday, conservative Andrew Yeager won a special election for a school board seat in a race that received national attention over its focus on race and diversity. The district has been the center of a furor over critical race theory, and the special election put conservatives in control of the board.
The school district also had created an anti-bullying and diversity plan known as the Cultural Competency Action Plan, which led to heated board meetings and a temporary court order blocking the plan.
Mr. McCarthy, who stands to become speaker if the GOP wins control of the House next year, invited moderate Democratic lawmakers to switch parties in light of Tuesday’s elections. He said he has had such discussions with several Democrats, who should be able to see “the writing on the wall” now.
“You’ve been reluctant right now, but join with us,” said Mr. McCarthy. “Our party is open to having other people join us.”
Progressives blamed the election results on the ever-shrinking ambitions of social spending legislation that is being finalized in the House and tethered to a physical infrastructure bill that passed the Senate earlier this year.
“It cannot be made clear enough that if Democrats do not actually make people’s lives tangibly better in the next few months, Republicans will win in 2022, Biden will accomplish nothing in his entire term, and Donald Trump will win in 2024,” tweeted the Gravel Institute, a progressive think tank.
Warren Gunnels, majority staff director for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and progressive stalwart, posted on Twitter, “Maybe, just maybe, the ‘debacle’ in Virginia could have been avoided if we had a Congress that listened to the overwhelming majority of Americans and passed progressive policies like paid family leave and expanding Medicare instead of bowing down to wealthy campaign contributors.”
Progressives could point to some election successes on Tuesday. The Democratic Socialists of America said at least 69% of their 32 nationally-endorsed local candidates and five ballot initiatives were victorious.
“Sidewalk Socialism — a grassroots movement to transform our cities and beyond — is rising,” the group said on Twitter.
In New Jersey, Mr. Murphy clung to a razor-thin lead over GOP Jack Ciattarelli in an election that was far closer than Democrats had expected. By mid-day, the incumbent’s lead had increased slightly to about 15,000 votes as more Democratic counties gradually reported results.
Mr. Biden carried New Jersey by 16 points last year, and Mr. Murphy had won by 14 points in 2017.
Mr. Murphy was challenged by COVID-19 early in the pandemic, as New Jersey suffered one of the highest death rates in the country. He was faulted for allowing COVID-19 patients to return to nursing homes, though others gave him high marks for his personal touch in recognizing individual victims of the disease.
While Mr. Murphy appeared to be clinging to re-election, Democrat Steve Sweeney, New Jersey’s longest-running state Senate president, was poised to lose his seat to a truck driver who spent only $153 on fliers for his campaign.
Mr. Sweeney trailed Republican challenger Edward Durr, a commercial truck driver, by more than 2,000 votes as of Wednesday afternoon with more than 99% of precincts reporting. The Associated Press had not yet called a winner.
• Haris Alic and Kery Murakami contributed to this report.
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