WASHINGTON — A GOP landslide on Long Island, a Republican gubernatorial victory in Virginia on Tuesday and a tighter than anticipated victory for New Jersey’s Democratic incumbent governor have political analysts and strategists warning of trouble ahead for congressional Democrats heading into next year’s midterm elections.
Suburbs won by Biden last year — including Nassau County — turned red or less blue on Election Day, spurred in part by voter unease over the ever-present pandemic and the increasing cost of goods.
"The suburbs in New York, Virginia and New Jersey came out to protest what's happening in Washington, and that sets the stage for a possible sweep in the midterms in 2022," said former Long Island Congressman Steve Israel, a Huntington Democrat who once served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In Virginia, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer, defeated the state’s former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and Republican victories in the state legislative races put the party on pace to block Democrats from control of the legislature. Biden won the state over former President Donald Trump by 10 percentage points last year, but Youngkin pulled off a victory by 2.5 percentage points by driving up turnout in rural red districts won by Trump and improving upon Trump’s numbers in the suburbs.
In New Jersey, incumbent Gov. Philip Murphy narrowly defeated conservative Republican Jack Ciattarelli by 2.3 percentage points, in a race that initially had Murphy leading by double digits in polls during the summer. Republicans were also poised to pick up eight state assembly seats. Biden defeated Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in the state last year, but Republicans were able to post gains in affluent suburbs by attacking Murphy on bread-and-butter issues such as high property taxes.
On Long Island, Republicans won both Suffolk and Nassau district attorney races, and Republican Bruce Blakeman claimed victory over Democratic Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. Curran, who trailed Blakeman by some 12,000 votes on election night, has yet to concede as some 22,000 outstanding absentee ballots remain to be counted. Biden won Nassau last year by nearly 10 percentage points, and narrowly lost Suffolk to Trump by 232 votes.
"The suburbs giveth and the suburbs taketh away," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. "The suburbs are the definition of a swing voting region, and last year, the suburbs took it away from [former Republican President Donald] Trump and many Republicans, and this year, they took it away from the Democrats. What was remarkable this time was how fast they turned. Talk about electoral whiplash."
The Democratic losses have increased pressure on Biden and congressional Democrats to deliver on the president’s sweeping infrastructure agenda, as they look to preserve their narrow majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. The party in power historically loses congressional seats during the midterms, but Democrats have been pegging their hopes that passing twin infrastructure packages would improve their chances next November.
After months of internal fighting between moderate and progressive Democrats over the final price tag for a sweeping social spending package focused on child care, elder care and combating climate change, House Democrats on Friday raced to break the deadlock, ultimately passing a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package focused on repairing the nation’s crumbling roadways and communications systems while agreeing to vote on a proposed $1.75 trillion so-called human infrastructure package by the week of Nov. 15.
Biden on Wednesday said the election results signaled that "people are upset and uncertain about a lot of things — from COVID, to school, to jobs, to a whole range of things," but he questioned whether passing the two infrastructure packages sooner would have influenced Tuesday’s outcome.
"It should have passed before Election Day, but I'm not sure that it would be able to have changed the number of very conservative folks who turned out in the red districts who were Trump voters, but maybe," Biden told reporters at the White House.
Israel, who was tasked with getting Democrats elected to the House as chairman of the DCCC, said he believed passing the infrastructure bills would have aided local Democratic candidates this year.
"Right now the narrative is Democrats fighting among themselves … if Democrats had been able to pass one or two of these bills, they would have been running on the high ground instead of running from a position of defense," Israel said.
Levy said Democrats were fighting against a "cascade of issues" that motivated suburban Republican voters, including resistance to COVID-19 mask mandates and calls by liberal Democrats to overhaul local policing strategies under the banner of defunding the police.
"The message here for Democrats is that if you expect to be in the majority, and make progress on anything, you cannot throw your moderates under the bus," Levy said. "Clever Twitter handles like ‘defund the police’ or waving a socialist flag, they sound great in a Democratic Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but it's going to provide fodder that the Republicans can use, and did use, to terrify enough suburban voters to turn their backs on the party."
Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, said that heading into the midterms, Republicans running in suburban swing districts will likely look to Ciattarelli and Youngkin’s political playbook — in the general election both distanced themselves from "Trumpian strategies," instead playing up their moderate credentials, while focusing on issues that play well with suburban voters, such as railing against high property taxes or questioning how issues of race are taught in the classroom.
"We talked a lot about suburban voters in 2020 and Biden making such great headway with them to kind of propel him over the finish line, but these are the voters that can swing back and forth very easily," Koning said.