Frustrated Democrats blamed one another and President Biden on Wednesday after the party’s devastating losses in Virginia and narrow win for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy that was supposed to be a cakewalk.
The victory by Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, raised questions for Mr. Biden and his 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. He appeared 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 Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The president said he didn’t know whether Mr. McAuliffe would have won had Congress passed his spending bills before Election Day, as some Democrats 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.
Still, 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 elections showed that voters had rejected the Biden agenda. Party leaders in Congress moved quickly to focus on the 2022 midterm campaigns on the potent issue of parental control in schools, a critical factor in the Virginia elections.
One of the most alarming developments for Democrats, and encouraging for Republicans, was in Virginia’s suburbs. Republicans won back thousands of voters who 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 R. Warner, Virginia Democrat and a former governor.
Sen. Tim Kaine, also a Virginia Democrat, blamed the party’s inability to agree on the president’s multitrillion-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 ‘doer,’ not delay, dithering, do-nothing division.”
House Democratic leaders signaled that they won’t change their strategy to 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 H. 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 of Indiana, the 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 job approval ratings, which have dropped roughly 10 points since early summer to about 43%. During that time, inflation reached a 30-year high, consumers 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 Republican Party strategist Ford O’Connell. “They were successful [on Tuesday] because they literally watched Democrats light themselves on fire for the past 10 months.”
He 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 County contributed to a warning by Attorney General Merrick 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 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 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 Republican 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 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 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 schools,” 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, conservative Andrew Yeager won a special election for a school board seat in a race that received national attention for 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 created an anti-bullying and diversity program known as the Cultural Competence Action Plan, which led to heated board meetings and a temporary court order blocking the plan.
Mr. McCarthy, who stands to become House speaker if Republicans win control of the chamber 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.”
“You’ve been reluctant right now, but join with us,” Mr. McCarthy said. “Our party is open to having other people join us.”
Liberals blamed the election results on the ever-shrinking ambitions of social spending legislation being finalized in the House and tethered to a physical infrastructure bill that passed the Senate 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 liberal think tank.
Warren Gunnels, the majority staff director for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and liberal 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.”
Liberals could point to some election successes. The Democratic Socialists of America said at least 69% of the party’s 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.
On Wednesday evening, The Associated Press called the New Jersey race for Mr. Murphy over Republican rival Jack Ciattarelli even as results showed him leading by fewer than 20,000 votes, 1 percentage point, with 87% of the vote counted.
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 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. Others gave him high marks for his personal touch in recognizing individual victims of the disease.
While Mr. Murphy eked out reelection, Democrat Stephen M. 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat.