Democrats can avoid midterm election disaster by running on their actual agenda
Republican nominee for Governor Glenn Youngkin holds a rally of 'parents' and 'families' in Roanoke County on Oct. 27, 2021, in Roanoke, Va. Youngkin and the GOP focused their campaign on a narrow set of issues meant to appeal to white suburban families, particularly the women voters who've often swung from Republicans to Democrats and back again. | Heather Rousseau / The Roanoke Times via AP

Democrats in Virginia can’t say they didn’t see it coming. Complaints at the gas pump and the rumbling at local school board meetings outside Richmond and in Northern Virginia foretold Election Day trouble. A massive right-wing media offensive spent the summer and fall pumping tales of Democratic inaction and Republican culture war fiction into the minds of voters, particularly white women. By November, many were convinced that the Democratic Party simply wasn’t delivering on the things that really mattered.

The gubernatorial campaign of big finance CEO Glenn Youngkin and the Republicans running alongside him for the state’s House of Delegates leveraged parents’ fears with the narrative that they were losing control—of their family finances, their kids’ education, and their communities. The Virginia GOP’s political playbook was saturated with (barely) coded racist appeals to rev up the Trumpite base, but it kept just enough distance from the openly aggressive style of the former president so as to not upset suburban sensibilities.

Trumpism without Trump: Youngkin and the Virginia GOP kept Donald Trump at arms-length during their campaign, but the former president’s agenda of racism, fear, and anger still featured. | Stephen B. Morton / AP

It’s a strategy Republicans will fine-tune for local conditions and deploy across the country for the 2022 midterms and beyond, so we should get ready to see more of it. Virginia shows you can have Trumpism without Trump, a development even more important when you remember this is a state that voted for Biden over Trump by 10 points in 2020. The Democratic Party apparatus, grassroots progressive candidates, and the mass movements fighting for people’s needs should see Election Day 2021 as a mini rehearsal for next year.

By focusing on Democratic legislation of the past few years that tightened restrictions on guns and pushed for police reform in the state, Virginia Republicans appear to have convinced many voters—white ones particularly—in this off-year election that progressives aren’t worried about the things that are important to families—things like rising prices or their children’s schooling.

Early exit polls on election morning showed “the economy” (33%) and “education” (24%) were the top concerns of voters when they went to cast a ballot. Youngkin’s messaging was tailor-made with those issues in mind.

He made easy-to-understand promises that targeted the pocketbooks of suburban moms and their families: cuts to income taxes, stricter requirements for any hikes in property taxes, the elimination of the state’s regressive grocery tax, and a one-year ban on gasoline tax increases. “Job-killing” policies like pandemic lockdowns he attributed to Democrats and argued they were to blame for stifling economic growth. Youngkin, the private equity Carlyle Group CEO, portrayed himself as the friend of small business, by contrast.

Initiatives that benefit lower-income workers and workers of color more than the typical suburban white family—like increasing the minimum wage to $15, providing paid sick leave, or helping people find a professional career after high school—were trashed for causing higher taxes and increasing the cost of living.

When it came to education, Youngkin portrayed himself as a crusader for parental control determined to protect families from government bureaucrats and radical leftists trying to indoctrinate children with the phantom said to be haunting the state’s schools—Critical Race Theory.

A masterfully manipulative TV ad released by the Youngkin campaign in the closing days of the election showed a distraught mother, complete with family photos on the fireplace mantle behind her, accusing McAuliffe of shutting parents out when it came to knowing what was being taught in the school curriculum. As with most right-wing ads, it was a gross oversimplification and distortion of the issues.

The mom in the television spot, Laura Murphy, was angry that her son’s Advanced Placement English class had been assigned Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, which portrays the graphic reality of slavery in all its crushing details. Leaving all this background aside, the Youngkin ad played on parental emotions. With talk of protecting kids from “sexually explicit” content, and without mentioning Beloved, it left viewers with impression the government must be assigning pornographic content to students.

The ad—which went viral just before voting day—was a contrived Republican hit job par excellence. And as for Laura Murphy, she and her husband Dan maxed out their legal contributions to the Donald Trump re-election effort in both 2019 and 2020—a total of $22,400. And their son, Blake? He scored a summer job in the Trump White House and is now a lawyer for the National Republican Congressional Committee. His brother, meanwhile, was wrapped up in a scheme to funnel $50,000 to Donald Trump, Jr., as a speaker’s fee at his Florida university. Hardly a typical American working family.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe made some unforced errors that helped Republicans, particularly in his response to the Critical Race Theory controversy. | Cliff Owen / AP

McAuliffe’s response to legislative efforts to restrict educational materials, while true, proved to be a rhetorical gift for Youngkin and the GOP: “Yeah, I stopped the bill…I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The words were ready-made for Republican publicists. A better answer was given by an AP class teaching guide: “We can’t turn our heads and pretend like these things didn’t happen. They did. They are woven into the fabric of our history, and sometimes we border on forgetting about this dark part of our country’s history.” A botched opportunity on the candidate’s part.

The Murphy episode is just one example of the communications mismatch between the Republican and Democratic Parties that seems to be eternally a part of election autopsies. While the GOP struck hard and fast, the Dems’ responses (and mainstream media portrayal of them) appeared weak and defensive at best, condescending at worst.

As for McAuliffe himself, he seemed torn between trying to nationalize the race by running as an anti-Trump and the option of reverting to the old centrist Clinton rhetoric he helped promote in the 1990s: “When I was governor, I had a simple rule: There were no Republican ideas or Democratic ideas, only good ideas.”

Well, there is no shortage of “good ideas” right now that the candidates and organizations of the people’s movements can be running on and fighting for as we head into 2022. There is a giant, ready-made, pro-people agenda that they could have been running on in Virginia and other places—and it’s to be found in the programs and policies of the Build Back Better Act.

BBB is full of things that matter for the economy, for education, for children, and for empowering the masses of people who feel helpless after two years of pandemic-fueled chaos. Things like affordable child care, paid family leave, free pre-K for young children, and free community college. Cheaper health care. Jobs in the green economy that’s coming. All of these and more are key parts of the Build Back Better agenda.

The right-wing Democrats holding it hostage—Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in particular—will use Virginia as evidence in their drive to strip even more positive measures from BBB. But they and their defeatist message must be resisted, or we’ll see a repeat of what happened in Virginia.

Right now, neither Democratic politicians nor the mass people’s movements are as effective as they need to be at getting the word out about what’s in the BBB agenda or in mobilizing support for it. We need to have deep analysis of why that’s the case. Of course we know the endless corporate cash behind Republican campaigns and the right-wing media ecosystem is a big part of it, but there’s more.

Opinion polls show that a lot of people don’t know what’s in the Build Back Better and infrastructure bills, and that they don’t like what they think is in them. Only 13% of voters believe their taxes will go down, even though BBB has key reductions and credits for middle and lower income people and only hikes taxes on corporations and those making over $400,000 a year.

Some 42% of voters overall (and 60% of so-called swing voters) are concerned that the money spent for BBB will go toward “handouts,” when in reality the bill is about making investments that create jobs and set the stage for long-term economic growth. Similar numbers believe they will be left to foot the bill of a deficit-busting package, despite the reality that Biden wants the big business and super-rich to pay.

Democrats and the people’s movements have to find ways to break Republicans’ chokehold on the political narrative of this moment. The Build Back Better and Infrastructure Acts must be passed to shatter the claim that Democrats can’t get stuff done and that only Republicans are capable of governing. GOP racism must be confronted head-on and linked up to the struggles around voter suppression and election theft; voters know when you’re just dodging an inconvenient controversy.

There is no doubt that Republicans will learn the lessons of Virginia. They will come away appreciating the vote-getting power of fear, cynicism, and blatant lies. They will know that they can force through Trump policies without having to deal with the loose cannon himself. That’s why Democrats and progressives can’t just endlessly use the return of Trump as a tactic to scare voters; they need to put their own agenda at the forefront of campaigns.

The danger of a fascist-leaning GOP re-taking power in Washington is enormous and must be averted. To avoid disaster in 2022 and 2024, our side has to fight like hell to get out the truth about what the Build Back Better agenda means for the people of our country and make it the centerpiece of our struggles moving forward.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.