WASHINGTON – A bruising loss and an unexpectedly close call in two statewide elections sent Democrats scrambling for answers and calling for new strategies Wednesday, as they worked to unstick a stalled legislative agenda that has exposed deep divisions ahead of critical midterm elections.
Barely a year from snatching unfettered control of the White House and Congress, Democrats were abruptly facing an ominous new political reality thanks to two Republican political newcomers. Glenn Youngkin edged Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the governor's race in Democratic-leaning Virginia, while Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of deep-blue New Jersey eked out reelection against Jack Ciattarelli.
Both states are filled with suburban voters whose loathing of President Donald Trump prompted them to flee the GOP in significant numbers in 2018 and 2020, fueling big Democratic wins. But Tuesday's results showed those gains were fleeting, as Republicans kept their distance from the unpopular former president and instead harnessed culture war grievances to rally the party's base voters.
It was a forbidding signal for Democrats gripping paper-thin congressional majorities and facing midterm elections in which the party holding the White House historically loses droves of seats, particularly in the House.
Many in the party said the voting underscored that, with people facing stresses like the still-untamed pandemic, inflation and high gasoline prices, Democrats controlling government need to produce results voters can feel.
“People want us to get things done,” President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House.
Biden said he was pushing Democrats to end their monthslong gridlock over the two pillars of his domestic agenda — a 10-year, $1.75 trillion package of social and environment initiatives and a $1 trillion collection of roadway and other infrastructure projects. House progressives have blocked the infrastructure measure, which passed the Senate in August with bipartisan support, in an attempt to force party moderates to back the larger measure.
“People need a little breathing room. They're overwhelmed," added Biden, whose slouching approval rating was viewed as a drag on McAuliffe and Murphy. “I think we have to just produce results to change their standard of living and give them a little bit more breathing room.”
Other Democrats echoed that theme, asserting that once the huge bills are enacted voters would feel the benefits in time to reward them next November.
“We’re not broken, we’re just not finished," said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats' political arm.
Democrats, whose progressives and moderates have battled for months over the party’s two headline measures, were of different minds about how the legislation could have the most effective political impact.
Biden said he thought the House should have approved the infrastructure measure before Election Day, but questioned whether that would have dampened the large turnout of ardently conservative voters. Biden didn't make that timing explicitly clear last week when he met privately with House Democrats and urged them to back his priorities, lawmakers who attended that meeting have said.
“I would hope this clarifies everybody’s thinking about how important it is to get these bills behind us,” Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said of Tuesday's voting. “The time for kvetching is over.”
Three-quarters of Virginia voters said the negotiations over Biden’s agenda were an important factor in their vote. Those voters were more likely to back Youngkin, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the state's voters.
“Had we passed the infrastructure bill last week, it would have given us some fuel for the narrative in the closing days of the campaign that I think would have helped,” Connolly said.
Yet other Democrats said the $1.75 trillion measure would have had more voter appeal if its size hadn't been halved under pressure from moderates and if some proposals, such as widely expanded Medicare benefits, hadn't been jettisoned.
“No," said progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., asked if his party's most left-leaning lawmakers were to blame for slowing progress. Rather than swift passage of the compromises on the table, progressives have pushed to protect liberal priorities in the bill.
“I think the reality is that the progressives are talking about delivering for the working class," Khanna said.
Eager to shore up Biden’s agenda in Congress, House Democrats said they would add paid family leave provisions to the massive social and climate programs measure. Requiring paid leave has been a key priority for progressives but had been lopped out after moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., complained about its costs.
Manchin reiterated his objections Wednesday, calling it “very much of a challenge.” Democrats’ need for every one of their votes in the 50-50 Senate, forced by solid GOP opposition, has given Manchin outsize leverage in shaping the legislation.
Democrats' stalled agenda wasn't their only headache. Youngkin's campaign deftly showed that Trump isn't the only Republican who can juice GOP turnout — and he did so without repelling suburban voters. His alliance with conservative parent groups organized to oppose anti-racism curriculum and transgender policies appeared effective, and was likely to become part of the Republican playbook next year.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign organization, signaled its optimism Wednesday by adding 13 Democratic-held House seats to the 57 it was already targeting for 2022.
“In a cycle like this, no Democrat is safe,” said NRCC Chairman Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.
Democratic campaign tacticians said that the New Jersey and Virginia results, while bad for the party, were not as bad as the 2009 elections that preceded the devastating 2010 midterms. They said the party’s political problems were fixable and expressed hope that Trump would help alienate swing voters by becoming more active in key elections ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run.
“When the bell rings on Labor Day 2022, the political environment is going to look different, the economic environment is going to look different, the COVID environment is going to look different,” said Biden pollster John Anzalone.
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri, Kevin Freking, Aamer Madhani and Steve Peoples contributed to this report.