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Lessons from Virginia

McAuliffe did not lose because he ran on policies that were too progressive or too moderate. He lost because he did not run on any policies. Democrats have to learn from Virginia and run on a positive platform in 2022.


The next governor of Virginia will be Republican Glenn Youngkin, who triumphed over Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday in a major blow to Democrats. The Democratic Party is, not to be cliche, in disarray. President Biden’s approval numbers are underwater, Congressional Democrats cannot pass their cornerstone legislation, and Democrats candidates are now struggling to win in Democratic-leaning swing states. Past is not prologue, but the Democratic Party is officially on the defensive for 2022.

National Democrats can learn a lot from Virginia, mainly how not to run a campaign. McAuliffe was a popular Virginia governor from 2014-2018.During his governorship, he restored voting rights to over 200,000 people who had finished their prison sentences and worked to expand healthcare to Virginians. Virginia Democrats were able to secure the trifecta in 2019 and with that power expanded healthcare, protected the right to choose, tackled climate change, and did much more. Any and all of this would have been popular to campaign on. Instead of any of the popular policies McAuliffe or Virginia Democrats implemented, McAuliffe ran on anti-Trump sentiment.

From 2017-2020, anti-Trump sentiment helped Democrats greatly. There were blue waves from Virginia to Arizona across those three years. Even in 2021, anti-Trump sentiment helped keep Gov. Newsom from being recalled. The difference in California is that Larry Elder, the de facto Republican nominee, tied himself tightly to Trump. In Virginia, Youngkin did not associate himself with Trump and this paid off. McAuliffe focused most of his ads and campaign stops on attacking Youngkin as a proxy for Trump. Whether or not that is true, voters in Virginia did not buy it.

Democrats have to learn from Virginia and run on a positive platform in 2022. If their opponents want to bring Trump up, Democrats should take the opportunity to criticize the former President for his failed policies. Instead of focusing on Trump from the outset of a race, Democratic candidates should focus on policies they have passed that help the American people. The American Rescue Plan of 2021 included provisions such as expanding the Child Tax Credit and increasing food stamp benefits. These changes tangibly improved the lives of many Americans. If Democrats in Congress are able to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Package and the Build Back Better Act, then they will have even more to run on.

Democrats need to define themselves not as the anti-Trump party but as the pro-voting rights, pro-labor, pro-choice, pro-democracy party. They need a positive platform and a positive message for Americans in 2022. The pandemic has been hard on Americans—separating loved ones, keeping us alone for holidays—and now, just as we are seeing the light, voters don’t want to hear negatives. McAuliffe did not lose because he ran on policies that were too progressive or too moderate. He lost because he did not run on any. Virginia showed that voters would rather hear about policies than about Donald Trump. Democratic candidates understood this in 2018 when running on lowering the cost of prescription drugs and expanding healthcare. Hopefully, they can do the same in 2022.

Anna Hickey is a third-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. They are the Editor-in-Chief for the American Agora.

Image Credits: Youngkin for Governor

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