Joe Biden’s presidency has taken a near-mortal blow after significant defeats in two key state elections for governor with Republicans pulling off unexpected victories.
Glenn Youngkin won a stunning victory in Virginia on Tuesday, snatching the governor’s mansion away from the Democrats in a state that President Biden won by 10 points just a year ago.
In New Jersey, Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy was locked in an unexpected dogfight with Republican state assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli that stretched into the early hours with the latter inching ahead.
Youngkin, a businessman in his first campaign for public office, defeated Terry McAuliffe, a past governor and close ally of the Clinton family who has been a fixture of Democratic politics for decades. It was the first Republican victory in the commonwealth since 2009.
President Biden had confidently predicted a McAuliffe win in a Tuesday news conference from Scotland and said a more adverse result should not be read as a rejection of his agenda. A year ago, Biden beat Trump by ten points but now his approval ratings in the state have slumped into the late 40s.
McAuliffe ran a pedestrian campaign, accusing Youngkin of being a clone of Donald Trump. He even acknowledged at one point that Biden was “unpopular” – something from which he tried to recover, but his message was clumsy.
The causes of the President’s unpopularity are debatable, but in a political climate where so many state contests are won and lost on national issues, they reflect discontent with Biden and his administration. McAuliffe lacked the political skills to overcome the effect.
Youngkin has created a new template for Republicans. He deftly kept Trump at arm’s length, accepting his endorsement, and took pains to avoid offending Trump’s support base. He accepted the endorsement of Trump and was careful not to alienate the former president’s supporters.
His campaign commercials portrayed him as an affable family man who was tonally far removed from Trump’s belligerence — even if he did favour some of the same policies.
Commentators are reading the results in Virginias and New Jersey as a rejection of the Progressive, left-leaning polices promoted by an increasingly vociferous element in the Democratic caucus. A ballot measure to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency went down to defeat in the city where George Floyd was murdered in May 2020.
Tensions between moderate, centrist and Progressive Democrats are increasing and many believe that both Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have lost control. She may well decide now to stand down at the mid-term elections in November next year.
Moderates argue the results demonstrate a need to chart a more cautious course or face electoral disaster next November. Now Republicans are on course to regain control of both the House and the Senate at the mid-term elections. .
The problem for Biden is that the Virginia result is not so unusual. His national approval ratings have sunk to about the same level as the vote mustered by the Democratic candidate.
He has had a rough, hard road this year since the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and now he’s faced with another bad story. A new round of Democratic back-biting has already begun.
Increasingly he is avoiding press conferences and frequently stumbles or misses his cues. At the COP26 summit in Glasgow he was photographed apparently asleep.
This month he turns 79. He has failed to have a landmark infrastructure renewal bill passed by the House as the Progressives threatened to vote it down unless it was tied to a massive social welfare bill. Initially this was costed at $US3.5 trillion but stonewalling by moderates have trimmed this back to $U1.75 trillion.
A year ago, Biden beat Trump and has returned the White House to normality after the rumbunctious Trump years. Whether this civility will offset his declining popularity and political skills is debatable.