Unsurprisingly, there has been a burst of commentary since Democrats suffered a slew of disappointing losses in Virginia during this month’s off-year elections—most of it not even from people who have lived or worked in politics here. Their response has been predictable: Terry McAuliffe lost because he didn’t talk to swing or moderate voters in the suburbs, which has always been code for white voters. But in fact it was the long tradition of the Democratic Party taking its base support for granted that led to losses up and down the ticket.
It’s true that the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election turnout surpassed the 2017 off-year elections’ turnout, which was the highest on record since the 1990s. But Republicans turned out more voters than Democrats by enough of a margin—fewer than 65,000 votes—to claim victory. It was an unnecessary loss that Democrats must learn from to avert more election losses in 2022.
One of the preventable mistakes made in Virginia was the lack of voter engagement from Democratic campaigns statewide, particularly in communities of color. I knew something was wrong when I found out that my own mother, a regular Democratic voter in Southern Virginia, received no outreach from the McAuliffe campaign but was contacted by the GOP. I heard this same concern from countless Black colleagues active in the state Democratic Party and allied groups. As Politico reported, there was widespread concern “that Black support for McAuliffe is weaker and less enthusiastic than it could be.” Organizers and strategists weren’t concerned that Black and other communities of color wouldn’t vote for Democrats, but many worried that votes were being left on the table because voter engagement efforts weren’t as strong as they had been in previous campaigns.
They were right, in that votes for McAuliffe and the Democratic ticket were left on the table. Although turnout was up in many Democratic areas compared to four years ago, GOP turnout was up even more. Hundreds of thousands of voters that came out for Dems in 2020 in Virginia did not in 2021. And that brings me to the second mistake.
Local committees representing the Democratic Party reported that they didn’t get the resources they needed early in the cycle and had to resort to begging for campaign materials like signs, literature, and surrogates to help mobilize and organize voters and volunteers. I heard this in conversations with a number of local Democratic committee chairs and elected officials before and after the election, including the Fredericksburg City Democratic Committee chair, who also detailed her experience in a widely shared Twitter thread. If you weren’t an already well-funded and/or -organized Democratic committee, your group struggled. This lack of support was especially felt in many exurban and rural areas—places where Democrats needed to increase votes to win in 2021 (and where they will need to increase votes in 2022).
The lethal combination of a lack of Democratic committee support and rigorous coordinated voter engagement can and did hurt down-ballot first-time candidates and candidates up for reelection, who often need these efforts to supplement their campaigning. We lost the House of Delegates by fewer than 7,000 votes.
When the McAuliffe campaign did reach out to its reliable base of voters, it focused on making his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, a business executive with no legislative record but right out of central casting for nonthreatening-looking white guy, the second coming of Donald Trump. Though Democratic Party staff told me the tactic was used because it polled well in internals, voters generally did not receive it well. Throughout the campaign, I would hear or see comments in Facebook groups for local Democratic committees like, “Why is McAuliffe talking about Trump? Why doesn’t he focus on a positive message for the future?”
Compounding these issues was the fact that the Virginia statewide Democratic ticket, while having some staff of color, did not hire any Black consultants to run TV, digital, or mail—key opportunities for direct messaging—according to its expenditure reports. And few Latino consultants were engaged. The lived experience and campaign expertise of consultants of color would have been quite useful not only on engaging the base but also in creating message and strategy for McAuliffe and Democrats, particularly as they were confronting the latest iteration of the “Southern strategy,” with the GOP accusing McAuliffe of wanting to “defund the police,” or the false accusation from the Youngkin campaign that “critical race theory” was being taught in K-12 public schools.
Recently, White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, a Haitian American, demonstrated ably how it could be done. Instead, per a usual Democratic campaign move, the McAuliffe campaign sought to appeal to white suburban women swing voters with pieces on adding more police to schools to address their concerns about “education” and children’s safety. In the end, Youngkin won many of the suburbs that Biden won last year, with the majority of those suburban women being white women who abandoned the Democratic Party.
All of this should serve as a warning shot to Democrats in the state and beyond. Biden’s approval numbers are down among the voters who made his victory possible. Even among committed Democratic voters in Virginia in 2021, enthusiasm has dropped, in part because of frustration with the party’s failure to advance policies that would improve their lives as the pandemic continues to rage on. The long-needed Covid relief passed, but the George Floyd Policing Act failed after a year of negotiations following the Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer. While the bipartisan infrastructure bill has now passed, the Build Back Better bill remains stalled in Congress, leaving on the floor priorities that are popular among voters of color, young people, women, and other parts of the Democratic base.
In order to win, Democrats must prioritize organizing their base of voters, especially voters of color and young people. Democrats can’t keep running to white swing voters to save them. The Democratic Party must fund and support their state and local committees and work with allied partners on the ground. And they must hire more Democratic staff and consultants who are Black and brown, and who reflect the base of the party and won’t recycle talking points for white voters from the 1990s or 2000s.
To be sure, some have argued that the Democratic path to victory cannot discount white suburban women voters and or white rural voters. However, we should be targeted in our outreach. It’s only white, college-educated women increasing their vote share in support of Democrats in suburban areas. Not to mention, Black and other voters of color do exist in the suburbs.
The Democratic Party has all but stopped a lot of outreach to rural communities, but voters of color exist there as well, close to 25 percent nationwide, along with some white people who have not bought into the GOP’s talking points. Democrats need to be knocking there. Dems might not win rural counties outright, but how else do we build power and increase the Democratic vote share in 2022 and beyond?
Those who argue that the Democratic Party should move back to the center would say “demographics is not destiny.” I agree. Democrats were able to win Georgia because, along with their progressive partners, they registered and mobilized their base of supporters while running up the vote share in places they would normally lose. If Democrats don’t engage with these voters substantively again, it will be a long and painful decade of losses that will disproportionately harm the very people who need them to win.