Virginia Is the Dress Rehearsal for 2022

25 Oct, 2021

IMPACT

Election Impact

October 2021

Virginia Is the Dress Rehearsal for 2022

By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst

The race for governor in Virginia is the latest, most important, election of our lives.

Typically, dress rehearsals happen a night or two before the opening of a big show, with little time to adjust before the main event. But the upcoming race in Virginia provides party strategists, candidates and normal Americans the valuable opportunity to practice participating in an actual election, with a year to recalibrate if it doesn’t go well.

By “going well,” I don’t mean that success hinges on whether former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe or Republican investment executive Glenn Youngkin wins the race. What’s more important is that Republicans and Democrats agree on the outcome.

That used to be a given, and even a hallmark, of American democracy. Bitter partisans fight in elections, but, in the end, there’s a winner and a loser. The winner gets to govern and the loser lives to fight in the next election. Yet that peaceful transfer of power tradition was disturbed on Jan. 6, and former President Donald Trump’s daily drumbeat of doubt about what happened in 2020 jeopardizes the country’s ability to agree on election outcomes for the foreseeable future.

Why does that matter? If Americans don’t trust the election process and believe in the legitimacy of elected officials, then there’s little incentive to abide by the laws or decisions made by those leaders. Some people may resort to violence to “take back” the government from what they see as illegitimate officials. And there’s also little incentive for people to participate in future elections, which further delegitimizes politicians elected by a small percentage of the population.

Casting doubt about elections is not limited to Trump. It’s becoming a mainstream Republican idea.

The Inside Elections team interviewed a handful of GOP congressional candidates recently and asked them all a version of the same question: Who won the 2020 election? All of them said Joe Biden is the president.

I’ve been interviewing candidates for 20 years and can usually recognize a clear sidestep when I hear it. And saying “Joe Biden is the president” is different from stating that 2020 was a free and fair election. Yet that’s how I expect most other Republicans to answer that question this cycle because it allows them to straddle the line between voters who believe the presidential election was stolen and those who correctly believe there was no widespread fraud.

That “Biden is the president” line will be particularly prominent if Youngkin wins in Virginia because he has used it during this campaign and his victory will be used as a blueprint for GOP candidates in 2022.

Overall, Virginia is a dress rehearsal for Republicans to test issues and messages that resonate with voters, particularly those in the suburbs who were repelled by Trump and his party in the past few election cycles. Virginia is also a dress rehearsal for Democrats, who are anxious to bring back their traditional GOTV effort that was mothballed last cycle because of COVID-19 and identify issues and messages that motivate base voters now that Trump is out of the Oval Office and not in the social media spotlight.

The aftermath in Virginia doesn’t have to be a disaster.

If Youngkin wins, Democrats will be rightly concerned about their prospects in 2022, but they are unlikely to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the result. If McAuliffe wins, it could be a different story, although there’s no guarantee that Republicans will scream fraud. Just a couple of months ago, it looked like Republicans were laying the groundwork to claim fraud in California. But, in the end, the gubernatorial recall was defeated and Larry Elder, the leading Republican in the race, conceded on election night.

Elder’s concession didn’t completely surprise me, because I don’t believe the intent by those claiming fraud is to undermine the entire democratic process. For Trump, it’s about saving face. He has to have something to blame for his loss, because losing is the antithesis of the Trump brand. Remember, he complained about an election that he won (in 2016, when he claimed without evidence that millions of illegal ballots from undocumented immigrants cost him the popular vote). So it should be no surprise that Trump is still complaining about an election that he lost. The rest of the Republicans are going along with it because of his influence and control over the party, and because of how it engages and incites the GOP base.

Even though Virginians are electing a person to lead their commonwealth, the stakes aren’t as high as next year, when the outcome of a few key races could decide control of the House and Senate. But, regardless of the outcome this November, it’s important for both parties to get the aftermath right. Let all the votes be counted and then acknowledge and abide by the results. Hopefully that will be the blueprint for 2022. It was once a given, but not anymore.

Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is nathan@insideelections.com. 

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