In politics, as in life, we often overcomplicate things. Consider last week’s off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia where pollsters and pundits are still combing through election results to make sense of what happened. It’s not that complicated. Republicans put up good candidates who listened to voters and spoke to their concerns. As Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote of Glenn Youngkin’s winning approach, “1. Be a respectable, capable-seeming person who focuses on legitimate local issues (schools, taxes.) 2. Don’t say crazy things. 3. Don’t insult Donald Trump…”
The numbers in Virginia don’t show that any wild swing of the electorate, in any demographic, rather small changes in voting participation rates made the difference for Republicans.
In both the Virginia governor’s race and a high-profile New Jersey state senate race political newcomers won by addressing quotidian issues such as inflation and education. In New Jersey, Ed Durr topped longtime New Jersey powerhouse Steve Sweeney. Durr’s amended campaign finance report shows his committee spent $2,313.70 – far less than the $1,061,957 that Mr. Sweeney’s committee spent on polls, advertisements, consultants and fliers.
Here are three takeaways from the elections that Republicans should remember for next year’s mid-term elections:
#1– Give voters something to vote for, not simply someone or something to vote against.
As a resident of Virginia, I was bombarded with negative campaign ads by Democrat Terry McAuliffe with scary music in the background that claimed in an ominous voice that Youngkin was an extremist. We’ve all seen these kinds of ads, they leave you feeling like politician X, Y or Z will come to your home and rape you, your spouse, and your kids. That’s just not believable rhetoric and McAuliffe should have known better than to rely on that played out campaign tactic. Even President Joe Biden used it in a visit to the state. In one rally, Biden referred to Donald Trump 24 times! Not once did he address high gas prices, or inflation in that speech.
# 2 – Listen to the voters. In New Jersey, Durr, interviewed on Fox News was asked what made the difference for him, simply stated, “I listened to the people.” Early on in his campaign Younkin tapped into parents’ anger at local school boards for their massive failure to open schools and offer rigorous curriculum. Instead, the boards imposed Critical Race Theory in the classrooms, and then denied that it was being taught. While McAuliffe not only ignored parents, he stated in a debate that they should have no voice in school curriculum. Meanwhile, Youngkin made this a central part of his campaign. Youngkin, a wealthy private equity manager, could have easily overcomplicated his message by talking about the nuances of the economy, and job market, basically talking over people’s heads. But he didn’t. Instead, he kept it simple and focused on what Virginians were talking about.
# 3 – Vote. While much has been written about how suburban parents swung the election in Youngkin’s favor, the truth is it wasn’t a massive shift. Northern Virginia’s deep blue electorate is not now deep red; not by a long shot. In Arlington County nearly 80 percent of voters voted for McAuliffe and in the other three large counties, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William, McAuliffe won by about a two-to-one margin over Youngkin. But Youngkin did swing a few voters in these suburban counties and had historically high turnout throughout the state. McAuliffe’s voters did not turn out at the same rate. Only 66 percent of Democrats who voted for Biden a year ago came out to vote for McAuliffe, compared with 84 percent of last year’s Trump voters. Youngkin also gained votes among blacks, and suburban college-educated men – not in any overwhelming numbers but enough to swing the election compared to a year ago.
The takeaway is simple, if you are a candidate, run on a positive message and listen to and address voter concerns. If you are a voter, do your job and vote!
Catherine Mortensen is Vice President of Communications at Americans for Limited Government.