Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, participate in a debate at Northern Virginia Community College.
( Cliff Owen
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Tuesday was Election Day in some parts of the country and all over the media, and in the run up, the setup was clear. It was going to be a referendum on Biden. A report card, a spine-tingling portent. Ah, why fight the prevailing lexicological trend? It was a hella good bell ringer...
NEWS REPORT As President Biden's falling approval rating takes a toll on his own party. A worrying trend for Democrats ahead of Tuesday's bellwether election.
NEWS REPORT A bellwether for the midterms. Whether or not Democrats are going to be successful or Republicans are going to retake their majorities. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The peanut gallery was all abuzz.
NEWS REPORT That New Jersey governor's race–wow! Republican nominee Jack Ciaterelli and incumbent Phil Murphy are neck and neck with close to 90 percent of the vote recorded
NEWS REPORT New Fox polling showing Republican Glenn Youngkin taking the lead with likely voters over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The result could barely keep pace with predictions of doom for the party in the White House.
NEWS REPORT A disappointing election night for Democrats in key races seen as omens for the congressional midterms next year,
NEWS REPORT Republicans deliver a political shockwave. The takeaways from last night's thumping.
NEWS REPORT President Biden has rejected suggestions that his Democratic Party's shock loss in the Virginia governor's race was a verdict on his presidency. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As Republicans collected winds, there was curiously little talk of voter fraud, though reliably nutty right-wing website Gateway Pundit did ponder whether Democratic losses were, quote, a head fake. You know, kind of a false flag and “part of a larger Psi-Op on the American public." OK. Nevertheless, the overall conclusions of the night were simple. Everything is a bellwether, and Democrats got shellacked. Even worse, surprise shellacked! Left teetering in advance of the next ballot box contest. A story fit for flashing chyrons, but let's take a breath. First, not all victories were within the GOP. A diverse range of Democratic candidates also scored wins. Boston elected its first Asian-American mayor.
NEWS REPORT It was the kind of win that politicians dream of. About 36 year old City Councilor Michelle Wu won yesterday's election for mayor of Boston, with almost two thirds of the vote. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And a range of cities elected their first ever black mayors.
NEWS REPORT Justin Beard is the newly elected mayor of Cleveland, Ohio. Ed Gainey is the first black mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Quinn Hart won reelection in Waterloo. Sarita Smith, first black woman mayor of Lima, Ohio. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE There was also a raft of important ballot initiatives passed. Reparations in Detroit and Greenbelt, Maryland. A minimum wage increase in Tucson. A rent stabilization charter in Minneapolis. New bonds to finance the construction and rehabilitation of low and moderate income housing in Albuquerque. A measure to create a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct in Cleveland, but the bulk of the coverage was focused on two states. Virginia, where the governor, lieutenant, governor and attorney general flipped from blue to red and the House of Delegates is too close to call but going the same way. And New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy won in a squeaker. The results out of both states were heralded as shocking events – but were they?
PAUL WALDMAN I was not surprised, and I don't think anyone should have been surprised. If you look at what happens in American politics, there's a very predictable ebb and flow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Paul Waldman is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post and senior writer for The American Prospect. What's missing in all the coverage, he says, is context.
PAUL WALDMAN One party wins the White House and then the other party is revived as its supporters get kind of angry and riled up. And what almost always happens is that the first major elections after a presidential election are the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, and the opposition party almost always wins those elections. And then in the first midterm election, the opposition party almost always wins those elections, too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So it seems Democrats took the governor's mansion in both states during the later George W. Bush years. Republicans took them back under Barack Obama. The cycle is fairly consistent.
PAUL WALDMAN The only times when it hasn't happened or when something truly extraordinary happened. So, for instance, in 2013, Terry McAuliffe won the governor's race in Virginia, actually getting a smaller percentage of the vote than he did this year. But he did it because there was a libertarian candidate who took about six percent of the vote. The times that it's happened in midterm elections, when the opposition party hasn't won a big victory. The only recent times were in 1998, when there was a real backlash against the impeachment of Bill Clinton and 2002, when we were still right in that post-9/11 atmosphere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Waldman says it's really a cycle of motivation.
PAUL WALDMAN Well, right now, the Republican electorate is the one that's mad and energized, and it is really hard to get the president's party to feel that same energy and be mobilized to the same degree. But the Republicans are very good at turning up that anger within the opposition. It isn't really all that hard to keep the opposition mad because every day they're seeing Joe Biden as president of the United States.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So... predictable, but kind of blah. Not exactly blazing headline fodder.
PAUL WALDMAN And this isn't something that reporters are necessarily doing consciously. They're not saying, you know, how can I pump this story up? That's not what they're doing. But the impulse is always to say that this makes a big difference, that this is something that is really meaningful. And oftentimes, the historical perspective leads you in the direction of saying, we've seen this before. People shouldn't get too excited about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE For voters, knowing that a Democratic president usually motivates Republican gains in local elections, and vice versa, shouldn't mean elections are foregone conclusions. They should be even more motivating if you know the tendency is for the party of the president to sit out the off year and midterm elections. But for the political press, Waldman says those times should be an invitation to cover stories beyond the horse race.
PAUL WALDMAN To ask: what kind of a difference is this actually going to make to policy? If this person gets elected, what can they really do about it? And that's a question that doesn't often get asked. You know, candidates kind of whittle things down to a few talking points. They might be compelling. They might resonate with your values, but they may not tell you much about what's actually going to happen after the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You do this job long enough, and you see the same breathless, speculative election takes every single time, making the usual likelihood of losses for the party in the White House into a bogus thrill ride. Our media tend to talk down to us, but maybe we don't ask hard enough for more or seek more elsewhere. Up next, Mark Zuckerberg desperately needs a lesson in reading science fiction. This is On the Media.