Reassured by the results of California's gubernatorial recall election last week, Democrats now face tougher electoral tests this fall that will measure whether they can defend their most important political advance of the Donald Trump era.
Big gains in well-educated inner suburbs ringing the nation's major cities keyed all the Democratic victories throughout the Trump years, from their recapture of the House of Representatives in 2018 to President Joe Biden's win in 2020. Now Democrats face the challenge of preserving those advances without Trump directly on the ballot.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's decisive victory in the California recall election offered a positive sign, with partial results showing him matching or even exceeding his 2018 performance in the biggest suburban counties -- and significantly improving over his already strong 2018 showing with college-educated White voters, according to exit polls. But preserving the party's Trump-era gains with suburban voters may be tougher in the upcoming Virginia race to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Polls consistently show Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy political newcomer, staying surprisingly close to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, in a state that has trended steadily blue over the past decade. McAuliffe's best hope of repelling Youngkin's challenge is to maintain the advantage Democrats have established in the state's booming suburbs, particularly those in Northern Virginia near Washington and others around Richmond.
Whether McAuliffe can protect that ground will likely not only determine the Virginia governor's contest but also offer a key gauge of attitudes across the broader suburban battlefield looming in the 2022 midterms.
"If you took the results of what happened in Virginia in 2017 and spread it across the country, that was 2018," says Democratic consultant Bradley Komar, who served as Northam's campaign manager in 2017. "So all eyes will be on Virginia to see if we are holding our gains in the suburbs. Are we motivating our voters without Trump in the White House?"
The 2016 presidential race produced a widening geographic divide, with Hillary Clinton and down-ballot Democrats improving in big urban centers and their inner suburbs and Republicans from Trump on down solidifying their control of small-town, exurban and rural communities. The 2017 Virginia governor's race provided the first confirmation that this divergence would continue -- and even intensify -- with Trump in office.
In that race, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie generated big margins and passionate turnout from the state's preponderantly White and culturally conservative smaller communities. But he was overwhelmed by a decisive move toward Northam in the state's affluent, well-educated and racially diversifying suburban communities (along with solid African American turnout in cities such as Richmond and Norfolk).
Northam notably improved in the historically Republican-leaning suburbs of Richmond. But the big shift came in the growing Northern Virginia suburbs. Northam won the big five suburban counties outside Washington by a stunning 263,000 votes. That was about double the margin McAuliffe had squeezed from those same counties while winning the governorship in 2013 and a bigger net advantage than Barack Obama managed even with a presidential-year turnout in 2012. That suburban tsunami was enough to propel Northam to a commanding 9-percentage-point win overall in a state that previously had been considered a battleground between the parties.
Virginia set the pace in 2017
The 2017 Virginia model, largely mirrored that year in Democrat Phil Murphy's win in the New Jersey governor's race, set the mold for elections in the Trump years. In 2018, Democrats recaptured the majority in the House of Representatives by routing Republicans in more affluent and better-educated districts, literally from coast to coast. Before the election, as I've written, Democrats held 57% of the 182 seats with more college graduates than the national average; after the election, they held almost three-fourths of those seats.
The suburban wave largely rolled on through 2020. Big, sometimes enormous, gains in affluent, diverse inner suburbs were key to Biden's victory in almost every closely contested state. Compared with Clinton in 2016, he swelled the margins by 100,000 votes in the four suburban counties outside Philadelphia, by 175,000 votes in Denver and its suburbs, and by 200,000 votes in Atlanta and its giant suburban neighbors. Biden comfortably carried Virginia by winning the big five suburban communities outside Washington by more than 500,000 votes, about 115,000 more than Clinton and more than double Obama's advantage there just eight years earlier.
On the other side of this divide, Republicans through the Trump years benefited from expanding margins and explosive turnout among rural and small-town voters. Even in the 2018 Democratic sweep, that allowed Republicans to oust Democratic senators in North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, three states with large White rural populations. Likewise, Trump's rural strength allowed him to hold states such as North Carolina and even Texas despite big Biden gains in their metropolitan centers. Democrats in 2020 also faced the limits of their suburban gains, losing some of the 2018 seats they had won in more conservative suburban areas (like Charleston, South Carolina, and Orange County, California) and failing almost completely to capture any of the further House seats they targeted in more traditionally Republican suburbs around Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and Indianapolis.
Even with these caveats, the parties emerged from the Trump presidency confronting a widening trench between rising Democratic strength inside the nation's major metro areas and consolidating Republican dominance beyond them. A key question for political professionals is whether those exaggerated patterns persist beyond Trump or, on both sides of the trench, revert somewhat toward the mean with him no longer at center stage.
Last week's results in the California gubernatorial recall pointed mostly toward persistence. In partial vote counts as of this weekend, more than three-fourths of voters opposed the recall in San Francisco and its big surrounding counties of Marin, Alameda and Santa Clara (the home of Silicon Valley); in each case those results matched or even exceeded the margins for Newsom in his 2018 win and Biden in 2020.
In Southern California, as of the latest count, Newsom dominated the affluent Westside of Los Angeles, won a solid three-fifths of the vote in San Diego County and even narrowly carried Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, suburban behemoths that Republicans once usually won. (Even if the final counts tilt any of those counties narrowly toward the yes position, Newsom at worst neutralized what was once a GOP strength.)
The "no" vote amassed big margins in the more sparsely populated inland counties that have become the California GOP's last redoubt, but until the final ballots are counted (a process that will take weeks), it won't be entirely clear whether those places kept pace with the robust turnout in the blue-leaning population centers. While cautioning that the final numbers could point toward a different conclusion, Sean Clegg, a senior strategist for Newsom, says, "I think we got asymmetric turnout."
Newsom's was the first Democratic campaign that faced the puzzle of motivating the party's base voters without Trump in the White House. After polls earlier this summer showed Democratic voters largely disengaged, the campaign mobilized them with three central messages. Newsom stressed the commitment of his Republican opponents to repeal the mask and coronavirus vaccine mandates he has imposed to fight the Delta variant; highlighted that his GOP rivals would seek to roll back access to abortion, as Republicans have done in Texas and other states; and linked his rivals to Trump, whom he portrayed as a continuing threat to American democracy.
Newsom above all leaned into the difference on Covid-19 mandates, and exit polls conducted by Edison Research for CNN and other media organizations showed it was a winning contrast for him. In the survey, about two-thirds of voters said his approach to the pandemic had been about right or not strict enough, and he won about 85% of them.
The issue was especially cutting with the college-educated voters key to the Democrats' suburban gains under Trump. In the California exit poll, according to details provided by the CNN polling unit, about four-fifths of both White and non-White college-educated voters said they supported Newsom's mandate for masks in schools and more than 7 in 10 in both groups described his approach to the pandemic as about right or even insufficiently strict. About two-thirds of non-Whites with at least four-year college degrees and an astounding 70% of college-plus Whites opposed the recall, the exit poll found; in the 2018 race, Newsom had won 59% of those college-plus White voters.
"This upscale vs. downscale, college educated vs. non-college educated divide really correlates to vaccination too," says Clegg, noting that vaccination rates are much higher for Americans with college degrees than those without them. "Don't think about it as just a Democrat vs. Republican fault line, think about it as a fault line between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. When you draw the line there, you bring a lot of independents with you and even a few Republicans."
Newsom's private polls, as well as late public surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California and the University of California at Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, all showed about two-thirds or more of vaccinated voters opposing the recall.
Because Virginia remains more competitive than solidly blue California, many political analysts believe that the results in its big suburbs may provide a more revealing gauge of sentiment in the subdivisions for 2022. (November's New Jersey governor's race is not drawing as much attention, because the state is considered more reliably Democratic, but also because it's unclear whether GOP nominee Jack Ciattarelli can mount a serious challenge against Murphy.)
Youngkin, the Virginia GOP nominee, has two big advantages over Gillespie in 2017. One is that voters from the party out of the White House typically are more inspired to vote in off-year elections.
"There's just a lot more energy when the guy you hate is in the White House than when he is out," says Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster. "I think California is the anomaly, because California is so Democratic."
Youngkin's other big edge is that even though Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points, recent Monmouth University and Washington Post/Schar School polls have shown more voters disapproving than approving of his job performance, as he's shed support among independents amid his late-summer slump.
A tightrope for Youngkin
Yet even with Biden sinking underwater, both of those surveys still showed McAuliffe narrowly leading Youngkin. McAuliffe is betting mostly on the same three messages that lifted Newsom in California. He's relentlessly linked the Republican to Trump, who endorsed him. McAuliffe has also called for codifying the right to abortion in the Virginia Constitution, an issue that has gained relevance since five GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices recently refused to block a Texas law banning abortion after about six weeks.
Above all, McAuliffe has hammered Youngkin for opposing mask and vaccine mandates to fight the Covid-19 outbreak. "Glenn Youngkin is against requiring masks, even though doctors and scientists have made it clear that it's key to keeping our kids safe and our schools open," a young mother declares in a new ad McAuliffe unveiled this weekend.
McAuliffe has pledged to maintain the mask mandate Northam has required for K-12 students and the governor's vaccine mandate for state employees. And while McAuliffe hasn't gone as far as Newsom in proposing a statewide vaccination mandate on public school teachers and staff or health care workers, he's urged employers to set such rules and left open the possibility of imposing them himself as governor if conditions warrant next year. (He also praised Biden's proposed federal vaccination mandates on employers of 100 or more.) As last week's first debate between the candidates showed, Youngkin has resolutely opposed all state and federal mask and vaccine mandates, and while he's generally sought to downplay his opposition to abortion, he was caught on tape telling supporters he would go "on offense" around the issue if he wins and the GOP retakes control of the state legislature.
The Washington Post/Schar School poll underscored the challenge that positioning creates for Youngkin in the state's burgeoning suburbs: College-educated White voters preferred McAuliffe over Youngkin on handling both the virus and abortion by margins exceeding 15 percentage points. On the bottom-line question, the poll showed McAuliffe leading among those well-educated White voters by 12 points, a significantly bigger margin than Northam amassed among them in 2016.
To Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, those results capture the squeeze facing Youngkin. To maintain the super-heated energy that Trump generated among the GOP's mostly rural Virginia base, "he can't change" his opposition to vaccine mandates or legal abortion, even though those views limit his suburban potential. "Youngkin's affable and he's a good guy. But he can't do anything about the positions that are hurting him [in the suburbs]," says Sabato.
Bolger, the GOP pollster, says Youngkin doesn't need to run as competitively in the Virginia suburbs as Republicans did a decade ago because the party now generates so many more votes in rural areas.
"We have to do better than we did in 2018 and 2020, but I don't think we have to do quite as well as we did" in the first elections of this century, through around 2012, Bolger says. But Komar, the Democratic strategist, says Youngkin faces the conundrum that the hardline Trump-style positions necessary to maintain an elevated rural advantage inherently limit his potential suburban inroads.
"There is a real Republican base in Virginia, and Youngkin needs to turn the Trump voters out -- but without offending the suburbs," Komar says. "He's in a much tougher spot than McAuliffe when it comes to picking the right issue."
Youngkin's best hope, Sabato says, may be to peel away the outer DC suburbs of Loudon and Prince William counties from the more steadfastly liberal and Democratic suburbs of Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria closer to the city itself. (The Washington Post/Schar survey showed signs of that happening.) To secure an upset, Youngkin probably also needs a further decline in Biden's approval rating; conversely, any recovery for the President before Election Day will narrow the Republican's path.
Betting on Newsom's playbook
Last week's Washington Post/Schar poll was reminiscent of a late July Berkeley poll in California that stunned Democrats by showing an unexpectedly close recall race because their voters were mostly disengaged. McAuliffe is betting he can wake them up the same way Newsom did, primarily by portraying his Republican opponent as a threat to progress against the Covid-19 outbreak.
Sabato thinks that will be a strong card to play. "On the vaccine side, it was the anti- vaxxers who had the energy; now it's the vaccinated population furious at the unvaccinated," he says.
The balance of opinion on mandates won't fall the same way in every state; a Des Moines Register poll released Monday found a narrow majority in Iowa opposing Biden's proposed employer mandate (with huge rural opposition outweighing majority urban and suburban support). But the latest CNN survey conducted by SSRS found narrow, but consistent, national majorities supporting most vaccine mandates and even bigger numbers backing mask rules; support for the various requirements consistently exceeded 60% among college-educated White voters and 70% among Americans who have obtained the vaccine. (More than 90% of college-educated White adults have taken the vaccine, various polls show.)
"For college-educated people, vaccine mandates don't seem too onerous," says Tom Davis, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee who represented a district from Northern Virginia in the US House.
Davis, now a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight, says that however these debates play out, the underlying dynamics of first-term midterm elections still point toward GOP gains in 2022, particularly with Biden's approval rating sagging.
"People voted for Biden because they didn't want Donald Trump in their living room for four more years, but they didn't vote for all this woke stuff and all these taxes and things," he says. "Everybody who wins, they overread their mandate ... and I think voters are going to pump the brakes."
But if there's any path for Democrats to avoid, or even minimize, those traditional losses next year it runs through the suburban communities that shifted toward them in the Trump years. Newsom's advisers believe they found a formula to do so with his trinity of Trump, abortion rights, and vaccine and mask mandates. With McAuliffe largely replicating that playbook, Virginia looms as the next big test of whether they're right.
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