Last month, Republicans managed to flip the seats for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General and to retake the House of Delegates. Governor-elect Glenn Younkin is a relatively mild-mannered Republican, but despite blowing a quieter dog whistle, he’s set to advance a radical right-wing agenda. His victory may offer a roadmap for some in the GOP as they seek to retake power. 

Predictably, the hot takes following the election largely blamed the left for the loss of the governorship despite the fact that the party’s nominee, Terry McCullife, is a quintessential corporate moderate. With the midterms less than a year away, understanding what did go wrong in Virginia will be critical to stopping, or at least slowing down, an insurgent right. To better understand what happened, and what lessons organizers might draw from the election, The Forge contributor Mat Hanson sat down with Alexsis Rodgers, the State Director for Care in Action; David Broder, President of SEIU Virginia 512; Maya Castillo, Political Director for the New Virginia Majority; and Luis Aguilar, State Director for CASA in Action. The discussion has been edited and condensed.


Why did the Democrats lose in Virginia, and what could they have done differently?

Maya Castillo: There are a lot of different reasons, not one single reason. We're in year two of a pandemic, and while we all put up some pretty impressive numbers of the voters we contacted this year, it’s not nearly at the scale that we've reached in previous years. Voter contact has been extraordinarily hard, and last year's presidential election was exhausting. Voters really got worn out and, combined with a lack of enthusiasm on our side, we were not where we needed it to be.

A lot of folks took Virginia for granted, and I really would've loved to have scaled up a lot sooner. There was the narrative out there that Virginia is solidly blue, we will be fine, everything will be great. Those of us on the ground know — and have known for a while — that that wasn't true, that everything in Virginia that we win takes a lot of really hard work. We are still the South, and the effects of that cannot be underestimated. Earlier investment and earlier ramp-up could have done a lot for enthusiasm, for sure.

David Broder: We have to acknowledge that there's an enthusiasm gap between the right and the left, and this isn't just in Virginia. We saw it in New Jersey, in other places. There's power and there is energy in being the opposition. I think we all leaned into it, on the left, pretty successfully over the last four years, and 2021 is an indication that that dynamic has shifted. The right has that enthusiasm now, and that's a lesson that I hope the rest of the country is learning and preparing for. 

We need to invest in meaningful, deep, year-round organizing. I know we're all proud of the work we do. We need more folks doing it. We need a bigger army doing it, and we need to make that kind of investment in it. I think we clearly need to build meaningful narratives around economic, racial, and immigrant justice, that gives people a reason to go out and vote. We need to take the racist dog whistles head on.

Alexsis Rogers: For the last two years in the pandemic, when Democrats were accomplishing so much here at the state level, a lot of voters didn't know. There's so much stuff that we pass, but the average voter would have no idea it happened even though it has a direct benefit to their lives, their pocketbooks, and their stability. We need year-round organizing, and that means having candidates and electeds and organizations talking about the progress that they're making in the community. 


Republicans had a clear advantage running against something, while the Democrats struggled to get their message out. What is an affirmative agenda that you think Democrats could have run on that would have resonated more with voters?

Rogers: I think what's interesting is that towards the end of the campaign cycle, you did see Terry McAuliffe's materials start focusing on raising the minimum wage, childcare, paid leave, making sure women can return to work — some kind of women's economic message that should have been the positive message for paid media from the beginning. I think they had the agenda, but I just don't understand why they made the strategic decision to communicate only about those issues in a very limited way.

Castillo: There was a huge mistake in running against Trump. We've been saying since 2016, "Unless you're running against Trump, don't run against Trump." That's not the message. It doesn't resonate with a lot of voters who are really worried about how they're going to pay their rent and whether or not they have healthcare.

We also need to have a better response to the critical race theory issue. The opposition was able to use it to excite their base and get people amped up and ready to vote and ready to protest at school board meetings — and we didn’t have a good response. Republicans were able to effectively use fear mongering.


We know Republicans will continue to use racist dog whistles. How can we effectively combat or counter those messages?

Broder: The right has been using racist dog whistles — racist bullhorns, whatever you want to call it — to mobilize their base for years. And we've only seen that amplified recently. The communicator and strategist Anat Shenker has this line where she talks about, in the Republican Party today, racism is the new tax cut, and we see it showing up, both explicitly and implicitly. 

There's been no counter. That's an ineffective political strategy. I think about my daughters who are five and nine growing up in a community where one side is screaming racist comments all the time, and the other side is saying nothing. We need to get into the conversation. We need to name that they are using this not just to mobilize their base but to divide us because they are terrified of what happens when we build a multiracial, multilingual, working-class movement. We need to be willing to get into dialogues that make us uncomfortable. We need to be willing to risk saying the wrong thing. But to build a real movement, we have to stop being race blind and fully embrace a race class narrative.

And the last thing I'll say is it's not just on the candidates. We can't just say, "Candidate X failed to do it." The right wing has built an entire echo chamber. Glenn Youngkin didn't sound like Trump, but he had other folks and it got lifted up. And someone at a school board protest of nine people of Loudoun County suddenly got reproduced in 50 identical articles and right-wing media all over the country. If we're serious about this, we need to build a similar echo chamber and system of lifting up a racial justice message throughout our communities.

Castillo: We need to address these things head on. When we decide on the left that these conversations make us uncomfortable or that we're going to ignore it because it's not a real thing or because maybe it'll go away, we're effectively allowing them to promote these dog whistles unchecked. We need to be able to name these dog whistles and really communicate to voters that this is not the world that we want to live in. We need to be a lot bolder when we're addressing these issues. We can't just keep saying that it's not a thing.

Rogers: We also need to follow through on the policy. What I would hate to see happen is more people getting more vocal and [our legislators] not following through with actual policy making. Even after the summer of 2020, we still had a special session that fell short. I want us to have something that helps us motivate our folks on race when it comes to voter turnout, but I'm also like, "I want us to motivate people through policy change and for people to see that they should be excited because Democrats deliver for Black and brown people."

Luis Aguilar: I think to counter racist dog whistles, the conversation and the approach would need to be beyond defense. An aggressive approach would be to invest a lot more in public education. Racism is an issue of education and of economics. The Youngkin campaign talked about jobs and schools. It doesn't mean that they're going to solve these issues, but they talked about those issues.


What's lost as a result of this electoral outcome?

Aguilar: What has been lost is the continuation of social progressive policies that began in the past three years — policies such as increasing the minimum wage to $15, healthcare access, funding for public education. Electorally, the consequences are at the federal level, of course, in the upcoming midterms, and the fact that you can actually disassociate yourself from Trump and still win effectively on a campaign. So it's a really good framework for Republicans, and Democrats will need to adjust to that strategy, even though Trump still holds such a grip on the Republican Party. So that's a big electoral consequence. 

Broder: To talk about what we've lost, we have to acknowledge what we've won. Because of the organizing that all of us, that our members, have done for a decade — and because we went all in for the [last] two years — we had a Democratic trifecta. We won tremendous things, and I think we should lift that up and be really proud of it. The list of firsts that Virginia achieved for southern states is longer than we have time to mention here; the impacts were tremendous. We moved from 49th to 12th for voting rights. That's an unprecedented jump. We moved on workers' rights from dead last to 23rd. It is easier to vote today than it's ever been. Workers have more rights than they've ever had before.

Those are bells that can't be unrung. What's lost is the opportunity to be the best state for voting. What's lost is the opportunity to be the best state for workers. And we similarly made tremendous strides on criminal justice reform and immigrant rights and environmental issues, but we know we're not there yet. I think local organizing takes on increased importance.


What should come next?

Rogers: The Democratic Party has infrastructures across the country, and they need to think about what their role is or should be within the progressive space. For so long, the party infrastructure has played the role of the anti-Trump messenger, but it has not always been the organization that is year-round engaging our communities on behalf of Democrats. I don't think our party has the resources or the capacity to do that with the current state party infrastructure. It’s a choice that has been made, and it is a mistake. 

I think that party should be doing more year-round work to engage communities about what Democrats are doing. Too often we look to non-profit organizations like ours to really do all the work of base building when we have this huge other entity, the Democratic Party, that we allow to just be there. And I think there's more that can be done.

Broder: Voting is just too fucking hard in our country. And we're right to be proud of all that we did on voting rights in recent years, but in Virginia, voter suppression is so baked into our system that we have an election in an off year. And a lot has been made of the record-setting turnout, and it's true. Turnout was higher than any other governor's race, but it was way lower than a presidential year. And this doesn't happen accidentally. This is intentional.

There's no one silver bullet, but I think we'd be remiss not to say the Senate needs to reform the filibuster. They need to pass voting rights, they need to pass policies that will actually make people's lives better. And if they don't think that's their job, then I don't know what they're doing there.

Aguilar: I think that failure needs to be felt to truly reassess and restrategize. When we have failed to advance important issues as organizations, we felt the failures, and we got up and we redid it, and we got up and we redid it, and we got up and we redid it until we were successful. And I think it's important for the party to do that. 

Castillo: We don't stop. We run year round, not just organizing programs but also advocacy, voting rights, expanding democracy — and then we'll start preparing for our next election. It really is year in and year out. We will be playing some defense, but we won't stop pushing for policies that work for our communities. Democrats and progressives have to continue to go bold and to push policies that impact the communities that need them most. We can't abandon that because we lost an election. We can't be scared of being bold. I think the thing that really needs to happen is not to moderate our position and sit to the center and cater to the right and try to come to compromises. I think we have to continue to be loud and to demand the things that we need.


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