As grim as this clip is for Democrats, it might reassure them to learn that all of these women were single-issue voters last week. If Dems can pivot on that issue — school closures — then in theory these votes are back in play.
Democrats will pivot. They already have, in fact. The country’s biggest blue state, which kept schools closed for so many months during the pandemic, has done a bang-up job of keeping them open this fall. With the arrival of vaccines for young children and wonder drugs from Pfizer and Merck to treat adults infected by their school-aged children, any remaining argument for shuttering schools for safety reasons (which was never strong to begin with) is up in smoke. If that wasn’t already clear to liberals, the results in Virginia and New Jersey have made it so.
I’ll also predict that we won’t see Randi Weingarten campaigning much with Democrats next fall or Barack Obama sneering about phony trumped-up culture wars, both of which are specifically cited in the CNN interview below as having alienated these suburban moms. (One woman compared Obama’s disdain to how school boards have reacted to parents’ complaints about closures.) That was total political malpractice by Terry McAuliffe. As bad as Democrats are at retail politics, even they’re destined to learn from it.
But it’s not enough. Watch, then read on.
All the hype about suburbanites veering rightward in Virginia to put Glenn Youngkin over the top after they trended leftward during Trump’s presidency is obscuring another problem for the party that’s harder to solve. Your read of the day is this Times story about the GOP building ever greater margins in rural areas, something Democrats didn’t believe was possible. They thought 70/30 was about the worst they could do outside the suburbs. They were wrong. They also thought Trump alone could motivate rural voters to turn out in huge numbers. Wrong again: Youngkin the private equity guy had bigger margins in the sticks this year than Trump did last year.
The NYT frames the Democratic dilemma succinctly: “The twin results raise a foreboding possibility for Democrats: that the party had simply leased the suburbs in the Trump era, while Republicans may have bought and now own even more of rural America.” Liberals can vow to keep schools open to try to claw back votes from suburban moms but how do they gain ground with rural voters, many of whom are so deeply alienated from Democratic cultural norms that even the promise of new welfare programs aimed at helping them might not be enough?
In 2008, there were only four small Virginia counties where Republicans won 70 percent or more of the vote in that year’s presidential race. Nowhere was the party above 75 percent. This year, Mr. Youngkin was above 70 percent in 45 counties — and he surpassed 80 percent in 15 of them…
In interviews with a dozen white, rural voters who backed Mr. Youngkin, policy was less important than grievance and their own identity politics. And the voters, fueled by a conservative media bubble that speaks in apocalyptic terms, were convinced that America had been brought to the brink by a litany of social movements that had gone too far…
[T]he politically urgent problem for Democrats is that rural America has moved faster and further from them in the last 20 years than urban America has moved away from Republicans. From 1999 to 2019, cities swung 14 percentage points toward the Democrats, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center report. At the same time, rural areas shifted by 19 percentage points toward the Republicans. The suburbs remained essentially tied.
Margins matter. A Democratic Party that’s losing 65/35 in rural areas instead of 80/20 is a party that’s winning many more races statewide. The more the GOP runs up the score in rural districts, the more heavily Dems will be forced to rely on the cities and suburbs. And those suburban voters are harder to hold when the GOP puts up an accomplished normie candidate like Glenn Youngkin instead of, say, Amanda “Trump in heels” Chase.
That point goes unmentioned in the CNN clip, that candidate quality matters. Had Chase been the GOP nominee, she would have promised to keep schools open too — probably more adamantly than Youngkin did. But I can all but guarantee she would have lost because suburbanites would have found her full-spectrum populism off-putting in some ways. McAuliffe’s incessant warnings about Trumpism taking over the state if Republicans won would have seemed more credible too. Remember, Trump also called for schools to stay open last year, before Election Day, and he still lost all four moms interviewed by CNN to Biden.
Next year’s midterms will be a fascinating experiment in how much the right message on schools matters relative to the messenger. How much are suburban voters willing to overlook some of the red flags in Herschel Walker’s past, say, so long as he’s pounding the table about parents’ rights? We’re going to find out:
The Republican victory in Virginia’s election for governor is proving particularly influential to party strategists who believe that Glenn Youngkin, a political newcomer, won the Democratic-leaning state in large part by arguing that parents had been shut out of decisions on race in the curriculum, Covid-19 precautions and academic standards.
“If the Virginia results showed us anything, it is that parents are demanding more control and accountability in the classroom,” wrote Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), the House Republican leader, in a letter to colleagues after the election. He said House Republicans would create a “parents bill of rights” soon…
Some Republicans said that the issue had the potential to draw minority voters to the GOP, as well as voters who had moved to the suburbs from urban areas in search of strong school districts. “There’s no issue that resonates like education in the suburbs,” said Christopher Winslow, a Republican on the Board of Supervisors in Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond that backed Mr. Biden last year but favored Mr. Youngkin by about 5 percentage points on Tuesday. “That’s where the votes are, and that’s where a Youngkin victory will be heard around the country.”
As for CRT, interestingly, none of the moms in the CNN clip said that it mattered. Maybe that’s because they didn’t want to admit to an opinion for which the left would have attacked them as racist, but the polling in Virginia backs them up. William Saletan of Slate sifted through the data and found that CRT wasn’t a huge driver towards Youngkin among parents, a group that includes many nonwhites, of course. It *was* a driver among white parents specifically and white people more generally. If I’m right that the era of school closures is now behind us, the GOP may rely heavily on CRT next fall as a key aspect of parents’ rights partly because it’ll help win back white suburbanites but partly because the wedge issue of partisan differences on school COVID policy will have faded.
One more lesson for Dems in the clip. While none of these moms have much use for Trump and clearly didn’t want him around on the trail, his friendly-ish relationship with Youngkin didn’t cost Youngkin their votes. You would think Democrats would have learned from last year’s congressional results that swing voters tend to separate their feelings about Trump from their feelings about Republicans downballot. “A telling statistic: There are some two dozen current Republican members of Congress in seats where Trump got less than 51 percent of the vote in 2020, ranging from Rep. Victoria Spartz in suburban Indianapolis to Troy Nehls in Houston and Steve Chabot in Cincinnati,” notes Politico. Anti-Trumpism isn’t going to save Democrats next fall, especially against Republican candidates like Youngkin with decidedly un-Trump-y personas.