WASHINGTON – For many House Democrats, 2021 is looking a lot like 2009, a year when a Republican elected governor in Virginia foreshadowed a dreadful blowout in the next year's midterm elections.
Republican Glenn Youngkin's surge to victory in Virginia delivered the first blow, and then New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was nearly defeated by a little known Republican, two results that led to one conclusion: Democrats are in grave danger of losing control of Congress.
“Is this ’09 all over again? This is exactly what happened in ’09 and it did portend a catastrophe in 2010,” said Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. He represents a safely Democratic northern Virginia district outside Washington, but recalled Republicans winning his state’s governor’s race a year after President Barack Obama captured the White House and a year before a tea party-led GOP wave took control of the House.
House Democrats in swing districts are likely the party's first line of defense against such an outcome, and they are the most vulnerable incumbents.
Mostly moderates, they helped deliver party control of the chamber in 2018 and keep it by a threadbare margin last year. Now, though, they are starting to closely resemble the same former Republican members many defeated four years ago.
Their president, Joe Biden, is not popular, and their control of Congress has been seen by voters as divisive and not productive. Keeping their seats also may mean defying historical trends dictating that the party that wins the White House loses ground in Congress during the next election — traditional political headwinds that are now almost certainly intensified for Democrats by Tuesday's election results.
Biden's approval ratings started falling with the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and have sunk lower amid an economy still marred by the coronavirus pandemic, inflation and a White House legislative agenda largely bogged down in Congress.
Biden traveled to Virginia but was unable to buoy Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe — he previously held the post from 2014 to 2018 — by attempting to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump.
“What worked when President Trump was on the ballot or in office clearly has a diminishing effect when he is not,” said former Rep. Scott Taylor, a Virginia Republican who represented one of the nation's most competitive districts. “This is true of anyone. Republicans tying opponents to President Obama didn’t really last beyond his terms.”
Youngkin avoided campaigning with Trump or embracing a national GOP increasingly dominated by Trumpism. Jack Ciattarelli, the former Republican state Assembly member who nearly unseated Murphy in New Jersey, largely did the same.
Virginia Democrats, meanwhile, lost ground in the suburbs, where moderate voters who punished the GOP during the Trump administration came back to the party enough to sway the race.
Taylor lost his seat — it encompassed the city of Norfolk and the world’s largest naval base — to moderate Virginia Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in 2018, then was defeated in a rematch last year. He noted that Youngkin's promises to ensure parents have more say on school COVID-19 safety protocols, and what their children are being taught, resonated with suburban voters.
“We lost support from the key demographic of educated women in suburbia,” Taylor said. “They care about education more than most. And they have seen their children, over the past couple years, at home, on the computer, falling behind, even regressing in some cases.”
Democratic strategists were nonetheless hopeful that Trump would help change the political environment by becoming a more active presence in key elections ahead of a potential 2024 presidential run. Candidates locked in competitive GOP Senate primaries from Arizona to North Carolina to Pennsylvania have been fighting each other for Trump’s support — meaning they can't follow the leads of Youngkin or Ciattarelli.
“The dynamic that happened last night will not be the dynamic that exists next November,” David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said Wednesday. “In each of the Senate races right now, Trump is playing a starring role.”
Frontline House Democrats, meanwhile, have for months promoted legislation they see as most appealing to swing voters. That includes insisting the Democratically controlled Congress tackle a bipartisan public works bill at the same time it is working to advance a massive spending plan backed by the party's more progressive wing.
Intraparty squabbles over both proposals helped ensure that neither was approved before Tuesday's election. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, said Wednesday that “what we saw last night was a very strong anti-incumbent message.”
“That, to me, is something that’s also about feeling like the government’s not working," said Allred. whose Dallas district has been targeted as a potential pickup opportunity by the National Republican Congressional Committee. "We have to show that we can govern.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was even more blunt: “I hope my colleagues absorb this notion that, when you’re the majority, to be a Democrat should stand for doer, not delay, dithering, do nothing, division."
Part of that division is between more moderate Democrats like Luria and the more activist progressive wing of her party. On Tuesday, progressives had limited success.
Michelle Wu became the first woman and person of color elected Boston mayor. But the left saw the defeat of a ballot initiative that would have remade policing in Minneapolis — the killing of George Floyd there last year touched off demonstrations against police brutality and institutional racism that swept the country.
In Buffalo, New York, four-term Mayor Byron Brown declared victory over democratic socialist India Walton, even though The Associated Press has not called that race.
Still, those results could help strengthen the position of moderates in swing House districts, who can declare themselves a bulwark of sorts. They can promise to keep Democrats' legislative priorities grounded in proposals that have a chance of actually being approved — rather than more ambitious goals championed by their progressive colleagues.
“This is not a moment for blaming," said moderate Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla. "This is a moment for action. And it is a moment to try and get something done for the American people.”
The Democrats now have a year to pass legislation they see as most likely to resonate with voters. Even that is no guarantee it will improve their electoral chances in 2022.
“Voters don’t go into the voting polls and say, ’I’m voting against you because you didn’t get that bill passed,'" Connolly said. “Maybe a voter does. But not voters collectively."
Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe in McLean, Virginia, contributed to this report.