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Democrats must stop their infighting — and four other lessons from the 2021 elections

Supporters and potential votes listen to Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at the Alexandria Farmers Market in Alexandria, Va., on Saturday, October 30, 2021.
Greg Nash

No amount of spin can alter the centrifugal force of the results of Tuesday’s elections. This was a shellacking and a thumping for Democrats. There are, however, lessons to be learned for both parties.  

First, this was the first “normal” election – meaning an election in which Donald Trump was not either in office or a candidate for office – since 2014, and Republicans performed better without him. If there is good news for America, it is that Republicans may be beginning to realize that Trump is like radiation — best kept at a safe distance.

At the same time, however, this was a continuation of a gyrating electorate that can’t seem to decide what it wants: from Barack Obama’s decisive win in 2008, to Republican victories in 2009 and 2010; from Obama again in 2012 to Republicans again in 2014; from Trump in 2016 to Democrats in 2018 and again in 2020. And now it’s back to Republicans in 2021.  

Second, this was a form of electroshock therapy for Democrats to stop infighting and start delivering tangible results for an impatient electorate. To coin a phrase, never bring “reconciliation” to an electoral knife fight.  

Third, this was 2009 all over again. Then, Republicans over-performed in the Virginia and New Jersey suburbs, setting up massive congressional victories in the 2010 midterm elections.  

Almost immediately, money and energy shifted to Republicans. What should be especially worrying to Democrats are the suburbs of Long Island, where they were routed across the board by candidates with far less money and name recognition. The suburbs are fertile ground for political earthquakes. The 2010 Tea Party ambush of congressional townhalls began there, spreading until ultimately claiming dozens of House Democrats. Now, Democrats need to prioritize reclaiming them.   

Fourth, Republicans successfully exploited cultural fights over immigration, their definition of “critical race theory” and vaccine mandates. Midterms are usually negative partisanship elections. Many swing voters are moved to vote based not on policy papers but by the idea of checking whichever party is in power. That means appealing more to voters’ emotions than their reason. Republicans successfully made this a “gut check” election. Democratic voters had glazed eyes. 

Fifth, 2021 was a perfect storm for Democrats in an argument about so-called “identity politics.” The Republican base stampeded to the polls, while the Democratic base wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the candidacies of graying white men in Virginia and New Jersey. 

The question now is what Republicans will do with their wins. Do they double down on unpopular laws, such as the Texas law restricting abortion rights, and risk losing suburban moderates in 2022 just as quickly as they won them in 2021? Do they read these results incorrectly as an emboldening of Donald Trump and reignite the anti-Trump turn out that swept suburbs and flipped the House to Democrats in 2018? 

One thing is clear: For Democrats to have any hope of winning the midterms, they will need to unify and mobilize fast. In the war between progressive Democrats and moderate Democrats, Republicans won. 

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags 2014 elections 2021 elections 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election Barack Obama Democratic Party Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Republican Party Steve Israel Terry McAuliffe Virginia

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