Republicans pushed Democrats out of the Virginia governorship and came up just short of an upset in heavily Democratic New Jersey on Wednesday, signalling trouble for President Joe Biden’s party heading into next year’s congressional elections.
In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive, defeated former Governor Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday’s vote, with the Democrat conceding on Wednesday morning. Youngkin had distanced himself just enough from former President Donald Trump to win back moderates who had supported Biden only a year ago.
In New Jersey, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy scraped past Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, even though registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans there by more than 1 million. The result had been in doubt until the Associated Press called the race for Murphy on Wednesday evening, sparing the Democrats a humiliating defeat.
Ciattarelli, 59, a former state lawmaker, had trailed by as much as 10 points in some opinion polls but gained ground by criticizing Murphy’s unpopular mask requirements for school children. Both Republican candidates saw strong gains in the suburbs from independent voters who had been turned off by Trump’s politics.
The results in states that Biden won easily in 2020 suggest that the Democrats’ razor-thin majorities in Congress are very vulnerable in the 2022 elections. If Republicans gain control of both, or even one, chamber of Congress, they would win the ability to block Biden’s legislative agenda in the final two years of his term.
The Democratic loss in Virginia gives Trump an opportunity to portray it as a rejection of his successor even as he sets the stage for a possible presidential run in 2024. But Biden, whose approval ratings last week were at the lowest level of his presidency according to the latest Reuters/Ipsos national poll, avoided taking direct responsibility for the disappointment.
“People are upset and uncertain about a lot of things, from Covid to school to jobs to a whole range of things and the cost of a gallon of gasoline. And so if I’m able to pass and sign into law my Build Back Better initiative, I’m in a position where you’re going to see a lot of things ameliorated, quickly and swiftly,” he said.
The top Democrats in Congress vowed to push ahead on Biden’s legislative agenda, hoping to pass twin bills worth a combined $2.75 trillion to rebuild roads and bridges as well as bolster the social safety net and fight climate change. They have been held up by months of infighting between progressive and moderate Democrats.
Youngkin, 54, declared victory after a campaign in which he focused on parents’ anger over schools’ handling of Covid-19, as well as touching on race and gender issues. He walked a fine line on Trump, taking care not to alienate the former president’s hardcore base and not offering a fullthroated rejection of his false claims about widespread 2020 election fraud.
McAuliffe’s efforts to paint his rival as a Trump acolyte fell flat with voters.