‘Huge trouble’: Voters punish Democrats for blind spots on kitchen table issues

While Biden discussed climate change overseas, Democrats got battered back home

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, pictured with now-President Joe Biden in 2019, lost his bid for a second term on a bad night for Democrats.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, pictured with now-President Joe Biden in 2019, lost his bid for a second term on a bad night for Democrats. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 4, 2021 at 11:24am

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden wrapped a climate crisis conference in Europe by warning that the warming planet is melting the Russian Arctic desert.

Back home, Virginia and New Jersey voters seemed to care about other issues on Election Day.

“The single-most important thing that’s gotten the attention of the world is climate,” Biden said after appearing to nod off during one session in Glasgow, Scotland. “Everywhere from Iceland … to Australia to, you know, I mean, it just is a gigantic issue.”

Biden went on to criticize some global adversaries — including Russian President Vladimir Putin — that are among the world’s leading carbon-emitters for ignoring the climate crisis.

“The same with Putin and Russia. You know, his tundra is burning,” Biden said during a press conference before returning home to Republican wins in state and local races that show a rightward turn among voters in places that put him in the White House just one year ago. “Literally, the tundra is burning.”

To be sure, American voters do care about the climate crisis. But polling data and Tuesday’s results might be a wake-up call for Democrats: Moderate GOP and independent voters who swung toward Biden last year are more concerned with so-called kitchen table issues. More Americans surveyed by data firm Statista in September cited the economy, combating COVID-19, immigration, poor leadership and race relations when asked what is the most important issue facing the country. Four percent cited climate, putting it ninth.

In a 2020 Gallup poll that came out shortly before last year’s presidential election, the economy, national security and the pandemic topped voters’ lists, far outpacing climate change.

“Look, climate is very important, and more and more Republican voters agree,” said one Republican political strategist who has advised candidates in both parties and was granted anonymity to be candid. “However, people are dealing with stuff that is impacting them directly, impacting their wallets, impacting their kids.”

‘We’re going to win’

Backroads PAC, a group that advocates for rural district Democrats, sounded an alarm in a Wednesday fundraising email obtained by CQ Roll Call: “Watching the results of last night’s election in Virginia, it was hard not to feel angry, and a little sick. … The results show that the Republican party is back with a vengeance and Democrats are in huge trouble in 2022 and beyond.”

While overseas, Biden was asked about Tuesday’s elections before the polls closed.

“We’re going to win. I think we’re going to win in Virginia,” Biden replied, adding moments later: “I think we’re going to win New Jersey, as well.”

But as Air Force One ferried home the climate warrior in chief, voters in the Old Dominion and Garden State were delivering bad news to Biden and his party, who already were facing grim forecasts about the 2022 midterms.

In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe by a narrow margin. Even more surprising was the New Jersey governor’s race: incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was headed to a microscopic win over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman. Biden won Virginia by just over 10 points in 2020 and New Jersey by nearly 16 points.

The red tidal wave produced a warning from one influential Senate Democratic moderate.

“It’s unbelievable to see what went on in Virginia — and not just from the governor’s race, but all the way down that ticket, a good bit of change has happened,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III said Wednesday, referring also to GOP wins in his neighboring state’s lieutenant governor and attorney general races.

“You can read so much into all of that last night. I think it should be a call to all of us, [we] have to be more attentive to the people back home,” Manchin added. “I’ve been saying this for many, many months; people have concerns, people are concerned.”

Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist, said Democrats had a bad election night because “they didn’t really run on anything.”

“It was anti-Trumpism, and better days are ahead. I mean, Terry McAuliffe wasn’t even running on his own record as governor,” Siegfried added. “Youngkin understood the local concerns of parents about their kids’ education.

“Democrats were saying, ‘We’re not Republicans,’ and running around saying, ‘Republicans are a threat to democracy.’ That’s just not going to do it,” he added. “Voters were pretty clear they think that when Republicans were in power — even with all of Trump’s stuff — they were delivering on the economy.”

’Fake outrage‘

What’s more, as McAuliffe’s lead steadily slipped away, top Democrats flashed an inability or unwillingness to take concerns over school curriculum, critical race theory and other matters seriously. “We don’t have time to be wasted on these phony trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage the right-wing media peddles to juice their ratings,” former President Barack Obama said while campaigning in Virginia on Oct. 23.

“What’s happening in Virginia is not fake outrage; it’s a movement of parents and students standing up to the Left’s attempt to indoctrinate and push a divisive agenda,” Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the UN, tweeted on Oct. 29. (She also is a possible 2024 GOP presidential candidate.)

Michael Brown, a nationally syndicated radio host, wrote an op-ed that was published by several conservative outlets slamming Obama’s remark: “The parents of Virginia, the people of Virginia, and the nation are saying enough is enough. You do not mess with their children.”

“They are saying enough is enough with the cultural brainwashing of their children,” Brown wrote of critical race theory, which posits that the legacy of slavery and racism has wide-ranging effects on cultural institutions. “Enough is enough with the rewriting of history. Enough is enough with making every issue into a matter of race. And, above all, enough is enough with endangering their children through a radical transgender agenda.”

Biden on Wednesday said Democrats have to “speak to” issues like CRT, and motivate minority voters to get to the polls. Too little. Too late.

Siegfried called critical race theory “this cycle’s version of Obamacare,” saying “people are very worked up about it.”

“Democrats’ response now is really similar to what it was back then [in 2010]. They just proclaim these people are wrong. They talk down on them,” he said. “Their problem is they’re not sympathetic to these people or trying to address their concerns. … This is really a case study in how to lose voters and alienate people.”

Meantime, in Glasgow: “And then all these … climatic things have happened that … people are now paying attention like they never did before,” Biden declared. “I talked, a long time ago, with you all about, that you have major corporate America pricing in the price of carbon. It matters. So, things are changing.”

Back home, some Democrats saw another kind of change coming — and blasted their party over its apparent blind spots on kitchen table issues.

“We saw the results of the elections in Virginia and New Jersey coming based on our own internal polling in the most rural reaches across the country,” the Backroads PAC wrote. “Democrats continue to fall further behind, after 40 years of failing to invest in rural districts.”