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Larry Donnelly: Republicans and Democrats need to play the next election cycle very carefully

Our columnist says Democrats were bruised by recent elections and he now has this advice for both parties…

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THERE HAS BEEN a significant amount of media coverage and analysis of the recent off-year elections in the United States. With the possible exception of decisive wins by progressive mayoral candidates in Boston and Cleveland, 2 November was not a good day for the Democratic Party or for those on the American left.

Much has correctly been made of the unexpected triumphs of the Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in Virginia, as well as the fact that New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic governor, Phil Lynch, barely got over the line in his bid for a second term.

Also in the deep blue Garden State, the state senate president, Stephen Sweeney, lost to a Trump-supporting truck driver, Edward Durr, who spent a mere $3,500 on his campaign.

Some advice for the GOP…

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, notwithstanding the clamour to “defund the police” in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a referendum to radically restructure the beleaguered department went down by a sizable margin and several city councillors who backed reform were defeated.

And in Buffalo, the long serving mayor, Byron Brown, extraordinarily mounted a successful write-in campaign to vanquish the “Democratic Socialist” who had bested him in the primary, India Walton.

This is all widely perceived as a rebuke to President Joe Biden and an omen that next year’s midterms could be a boon for the GOP. Although it is too early to make predictions with any degree of certainty and it would be a mistake to extrapolate unduly from the results, there are lessons to be learned. 

Here are three consequent pieces of advice for each – this month’s victors first:

1. Dance like Glenn Youngkin. The wealthy businessman and political neophyte pulled off an upset against the long-time Democratic stalwart and well-liked former governor, Terry McAuliffe, in Virginia. One of the main reasons why Youngkin prevailed was how he engaged with Donald Trump.

He was close to and flirtatious with the ex-POTUS, who is revered by many of the right-wing faithful, during the primary, then subtly distanced himself from the most controversial figure in the US, without actually criticising him, in the general election.

This tack worked ideally in a place that Trump lost in 2020 by 10 percentage points. His cleverly orchestrated manoeuvring brought vital constituencies, in particular white suburban women, back into the fold. Youngkin’s party colleagues, especially those in battleground states, should borrow his playbook.

2. Put Winsome Sears front and centre. Staying in Virginia, Sears, its lieutenant governor-elect, was born in Jamaica. Her immigrant father arrived in New York with a mere $1.75 in his pocket. Sears herself went on to earn an advanced degree, to serve in the US Marines and to become a small business owner before entering politics. She has a compelling life story to tell.

Sears’ resolutely conservative philosophy rebuts the presumption that Black Americans are politically monolithic. That she has found a welcoming home among Republicans contradicts, at least on the surface, the narrative that the Trump-loving grassroots are irredeemably racist.

Her skills and acumen as a politician, as well as her background, will soon come under scrutiny and be put to the test, but Sears is a woman of the moment and a tremendous asset to the GOP.

3. Beg Vermont Governor Phil Scott to run for US Senate. This is the biggest ask and the most unlikely to come to pass. Scott is one of a dwindling breed of liberal Republicans, most of whom hail from New England, and a popular governor of a state dominated by leftist Democrats.

Vermont’s senior senator, Patrick Leahy, has been on Capitol Hill since January of 1975 and has not formally declared whether he will seek a ninth, six-year term in the Senate. Most observers suspect that he will.

This would be an uphill fight for Scott, but his running would help Republicans more broadly both by drawing attention to someone many Americans would think has been in office for way too long and by signalling that their party, despite what pundits claim, remains a “big tent” that is open to people with a diverse range of views.

And for Democrats?

With respect to the Democrats, it is always harder to offer a prescription for recovery than to build on what is working. Here goes:

1. Step it up, Joe Biden. The president’s approval rating is hovering around 40%. He has made mistakes. On the other hand, he has done some things right and not all the indicators are bad. On the latter, inflation is unquestionably a serious issue, but fewer than 5% of Americans are unemployed, Gross Domestic Product is on the increase and the Dow Jones Industrial Average has surged to record highs.

Moreover, he managed to push a comprehensive Covid-19 relief package through early in 2021, has gotten a badly needed bill to fix the country’s physical infrastructure through a divided Congress and is advocating strenuously for a potentially transformative Build Back Better Act. These are successes to be trumpeted.

President Biden’s detractors allege that the 78 year old lacks the capacity and fire in the belly to capitalise on the bully pulpit. If anything, their writing him off should be an incentive for the proud Scranton native to up his game. There is no way around it: he has to do better.

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2. Robustly defend Build Back Better. The initial $3.5 trillion dollar spending bundle has been cut in half, partly at the behest of moderate Democrats who were wary of an objectively stratospheric price tag. That regrettably led to the jettisoning of proposals for free community college and paid family leave, yet it still includes universal pre-school and reduced costs for childcare.

Regardless of the reservations of all the Republicans and a smattering of the Democrats in Congress, these benefits are desired by a substantial majority of Americans. Accordingly, Democrats should repeatedly and aggressively emphasise what struggling individuals and families will gain from Build Back Better and not allow their opponents to simply dwell on what it costs. The messaging must improve.

3. Vote tactically in the 2022 primaries. Those in their flock will surely disagree, but a valid takeaway from 2 November is that AOC/Bernie type Democrats are out of step with the bulk of the citizenry. And this is arguably most pronounced on the so-called “culture wars.”

In order to avoid the bloodbath that some of the party’s strategists fear might lie in store in the midterms, Democrats should consider the electability factor when they cast ballots in contests that pit progressives against centrists.

As ever, Pennsylvania is instructive on what is a national quandary. The moderate Democratic congressman Conor Lamb, who won in a district that endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, is vying for the nomination for an open US Senate seat with three liberals.

To quote the assessment of one insider, “Conor is a really strong general election candidate…he has problems getting out of a primary.” The party’s voters should reflect upon this astute evaluation. It may feel good to make ideological purity their top priority, yet such a choice could very well backfire spectacularly.

At any rate, I’ll be monitoring their pivots keenly. Stay tuned.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie. His new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – is published by Gill Books and is now available in all bookshops.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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