Democrats awoke Wednesday to a round of soul-searching after devastating losses in Virginia and a New Jersey race that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Gov. Phil Murphy but remains a dead heat.
The results raise questions for President Biden and allies, who were unable to highlight results for voters and risk losing the House and the Senate next year.
Progressives immediately pointed to 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.
Democrats’ woes started across the Potomac River in Virginia. Republican Glenn Youngkin headlined a trifecta of party wins in the Old Dominion by nudging aside Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race by 2 points after he had focused on parents’ role in education and deftly maneuvered former President Donald Trump’s dominance over the GOP.
Winsome Sears won her GOP race for lieutenant governor, making her the first woman and first Black woman to hold the post in the state’s history, and Republican Jason Miyares defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Herring for state attorney general.
“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,” tweeted Warren Gunnels, majority staff director for Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and progressive stalwart.
Democratic centrists, in turn, are poised to blame progressives for holding up the infrastructure package that passed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate and would have given Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. Murphy and others something to run on.
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.
Mr. Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, tried to thread the needle between Trump-loving Republicans and moderates and attacked the governor relentlessly over high taxes and his coronavirus pandemic record.
The governor could still win reelection once Democratic strongholds finish reporting. But even then, it could feel like a Pyrrhic victory for his party.
“We’re all sorry that tonight cannot yet be the celebration we wanted it to be,” Mr. Murphy told an election night crowd. “But when every vote is counted — and every vote will be counted — we hope to have a celebration.”
Democrats’ worries will continue even after the counting is over. The party is clinging to a 220-212 majority in the House and could see it slip away as key lawmakers opt to retire and the caucus scuffles over its priorities.
Senate Republicans are relishing the chance to tilt the upper chamber back their way after seeing two Georgia seats slip away in the last cycle, resulting in a 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tie-breaker.
Some aren’t sure the Democrats will be able to flip the script.
“Let the soul-searching among Democrats begin,” tweeted Andrew Yang, a former presidential contender. “Unfortunately they have been through this before and there hasn’t been an appreciable shift. They tend to blame voters.”