WASHINGTON — Reeling from a barrage of unexpected losses, an array of Democrats on Wednesday pleaded with President Joe Biden and his party’s lawmakers to address the quality-of-life issues that plagued their candidates in elections on Tuesday from heavily Hispanic San Antonio to the suburbs of Virginia, New Jersey and New York.
Although they had braced for a close race for Virginia governor, Democrats were caught off guard by the intensity of the backlash against their party in major off-year elections. Republicans claimed all three statewide offices in Virginia, will likely take control of the state’s House of Delegates and came close to upsetting Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, whose reelection had been presumed safe by officials in both parties.
Just as jarring for Democrats were some of the less prominent contests: The powerful New Jersey state Senate president, Steve Sweeney, was trailing a truck driver who ran a shoestring campaign; a Latino Republican flipped a Democratic seat in south San Antonio; and Democrats were thrashed in local races across Long Island.
The scope of the party’s setbacks illustrated that voters were fatigued from the demands of the still-continuing coronavirus pandemic and angry about the soaring prices and scarcity of goods they were confronting every day. While Democrats’ strength in cities and some large suburbs saved them from even deeper losses, their electoral coalition showed signs of fraying as voters vented their unhappiness with the party in power.
Responding to Tuesday’s results like an alarm bell in the night, Democrats on the ballot next year said that unless Biden and other party leaders addressed voters’ close-to-home frustrations, they were certain to lose their congressional majorities.
“We were so willing to take seriously a global pandemic, but we’re not willing to say, ‘Yeah, inflation is a problem, and supply chain is a problem, and we don’t have enough workers in our workforce,’” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat facing a bruising reelection. “We gloss over that and only like to admit to problems in spaces we dominate.”
More pointedly, Spanberger said Biden must not forget that, for many voters, his mandate was quite limited: to remove former President Donald Trump from their television screens and to make American life ordinary again.
“Nobody elected him to be FDR, they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” she said, alluding to the sweeping agenda the president is seeking to enact with the thinnest of legislative majorities.
Democrats in Washington on Wednesday appeared no less determined to forge ahead with Biden’s signature domestic legislation: a major infrastructure bill and a multitrillion-dollar package of social-welfare programs and initiatives to fight climate change. Both moderate and liberal lawmakers say they feel new urgency to show voters they can get big things done.
But Democratic officials also conceded that voters seemed to have penalized the party for devoting months to opaque negotiations on Capitol Hill over legislation that they have spent little time explaining to the public.
Many progressive Democrats believe the only way the party can appeal to voters next year is to deliver for them a range of accomplishments aimed at improving their quality of life. Passing the fullest version of the president’s social welfare and climate legislation, they say, is crucial to motivating voters in the midterm.
“We’re seeing the expectations of our base not being fulfilled and that’s suppressing the vote by itself,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, a progressive Arizonan, who expressed frustration at moderates for holding up the party’s agenda and said he would no longer adhere to “that code of silence” about Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. “We’re mad at them, but we can’t say anything because it might make them weirder.”
Yet Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from Long Island, said the party should be careful about including too much in its social-welfare legislation. “I don’t understand some of my more progressive colleagues saying last night now shows us that what we need to do is get both of these bills done and shove even more progressive stuff in,” Rice said. “What we’re talking about is not resonating with voters.”
What both factions agree on is that Democrats will be punished again in 2022 if Americans do not feel better about the direction of the country than they do today.
Biden and his aides have effectively staked his presidency on the belief that voters would reward him — and other Democrats — for steering the country out of a crippling public-health crisis and back to economic prosperity. His aides have repeatedly briefed members of Congress on plans to trumpet the country’s recovery before the midterm elections and educate voters about how the Democrats’ initiatives have improved their lives.
Yet even as the economy has partly rebounded and the pandemic has greatly receded, Biden has not begun to deliver a message that happy days are here again. Nor has he undertaken any kind of large-scale, sustained campaign to remind people of the economic stimulus and mass-vaccination programs that defined his administration in the early days.
In the absence of such a concerted appeal from the president, many voters appear to have sunk into a state of glum pessimism. In both Virginia and New Jersey, polls consistently found that large majorities believed the country was on the wrong track, even though most American adults were now vaccinated and schools had reopened.
Now, Democratic officials say, the party must do more to address head-on the electorate’s deep malaise or risk watching voters lurch back toward the GOP by default.
“People are fatigued and confused, and they want to get back to their normal lives, whatever that might be,” said Loretta Weinberg, a Democratic state senator in New Jersey. “They want their schools open, and they want their health care protected, and they want to have an option of working and operating businesses.”
Weinberg, a longtime party leader, said Democrats had not sufficiently reckoned with the demoralizing effects of the coronavirus pandemic. On the right, she said, there were “horrendous and hateful” attitudes toward state officials who battled the disease. But there was not equal and opposite political engagement among Democrats.
“We are a high-property-taxes, very densely populated, very diverse state, with all of the problems of people living close together during a time of a pandemic — tough decisions of closing schools and closing down the economy,” she said. “And it all came back to roost.”
In Virginia, Rep. Donald McEachin said voters were chafing to “return to normal as quickly as possible,” and he urged his fellow Democrats to speak directly to that impatience.
“To the extent that things aren’t normal, they need us as leaders and as civil servants to acknowledge that and tell them how we’re going to make it better,” McEachin said.
The Richmond-based Democrat blamed his party’s nominee for governor, Terry McAuliffe, not only for failing to engage restive voters but also for a particularly harmful sin of commission. McAuliffe, he said, had undermined Democrats with a “horrible misstatement” near the end of the campaign, saying in a debate he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The remark appeared to dismiss the role of parents in shaping their children’s education — and Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor, brandished it as proof that Democrats were indifferent to voters’ grievances.
“You cannot tell a group of people who have had, for 18 months or so, to have to home-school their children that their opinion about their children’s education doesn’t matter,” McEachin said, stressing: “I do think that we as a party need to acknowledge that people have been through a lot in the last 18 months.”
Where there are tactical differences in the party is over how much to continue linking Republicans to Trump, as McAuliffe did at the expense of any other message in Virginia.
Some lawmakers, like Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, believe Tuesday’s results showed that the focus on Trump is ineffective.
But Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairperson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was not second-guessing it.
“Glenn Youngkin got away with being all things to all people, and we can’t let them do that,” Maloney said, adding: “The House Republicans have cast their lot with the toxic Trump agenda of lying about the election, of minimizing the pandemic, of ignoring the attack on the Capitol.”
While more unexpected, the Democratic defeats on Tuesday were not as overwhelming as the last time the party controlled the presidency and Congress, in 2009, when Republicans won the Virginia governorship by 17 percentage points and the New Jersey governorship as well. Deepening polarization has entrenched Democrats in some suburban jurisdictions, such as Virginia’s Fairfax County, which McAuliffe carried by 30 percentage points in his comeback bid.
These suburban voters, who remain disdainful of Trump, may not be reachable for Republicans next year. There are, however, two sides to the country’s growing polarization, and the sweeping losses that Democrats suffered in rural Virginia and in New Jersey demonstrated that they were at grave risk of losing even more states and districts next year with sparse populations.
What gives Democrats some optimism is the idea that, while their candidates this year were running against an unsightly backdrop of intraparty legislative wrangling, there will be major accomplishments to trumpet next year.
“When we’re talking process, we’re losing, but once the process is done, we’re going to have lots to say about what we’re doing for real people,” John Anzalone, Biden’s pollster, said.
Of course, by the 2010 midterms, Democrats had the opportunity to promote the Affordable Care Act and still suffered sweeping losses — in part because they were not seen as sufficiently focused on reviving the post-recession economy.
The effects of the pandemic, particularly with students and parents, is “a national crisis and pretending otherwise is not fooling anybody,” said Howard Wolfson, a longtime Democratic strategist. “Our conversation as a party has to align with what people care about.”
Wolfson said Democrats must make “a course correction” and recognize that Biden should fulfill his promise to “battle COVID and return some bipartisan normalcy to Washington.”
If they don’t, he said, “last night’s rain is going to look like a tiny drizzle because the hurricane is coming.”