What the Virginia elections reveal about the prospect of a second Trump presidency

By Martin Woodley

Following revelations from the book Peril, by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, that the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, twice called his Chinese counterpart in the People’s Liberation Army in order to reassure China that there would be no US attack launched against it, grave concerns over the stability of international relations in the closing moments of the Trump administration were expressed. The grounds for Milley’s actions were apparently a review of intelligence which suggested that China believed the US was preparing an attack following an escalation of tensions around a military exercise in the South China Sea and increasingly belligerent statements issued by Trump.

The first of these calls was 30 October – four days prior to election day; the second was 8 January – two days after the infamous insurrection and siege at the Capitol, when Trump attempted to overturn the result of the election. Both of the calls illustrate the manner in which extremely heightened tensions around a sharp political struggle in the US can lead to catastrophic outcomes for international relations and for humanity in general.

Another Republican administration, whether led by Trump or by a Trump acolyte, would herald a catastrophe for global wellbeing. For instance, while global capitalism has shown itself quite incapable of adequately driving solutions to the climate crisis, at least world governance in the form of the United Nations is attempting to raise the alarm and facilitate discussion with a view to stimulate action. However, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris climate accords, which sought to reduce carbon emissions  so as to prevent global temperatures from rising to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. While nothing is 100% certain, the indications are that the policies and approaches associated with Trump are now arguably even more secure and established within the Republican Party than they were not only in 2016 when he won the presidency, but also even in 2020 when he lost the presidency. It is therefore safe to say that a second Trump, or Trumpite, presidency would be resolutely opposed to the continuation of the US in agreements coming out of COP 26.

In the US itself, despite being ranked top in the Global Health Security Index, a disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic which has led currently to over 775,000 deaths – an average of over 1,200 deaths per day since the start of the pandemic and a 40% higher mortality rate than the average of the other G7 members – was exacerbated by Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the severity of the disease, his undermining of the work of public health agencies, his refusal to impose federal restrictions, his censoring of government scientists, his vilification of the World Health Organisation and his compelling of agencies to issue ‘inaccurate information, issue ill-advised health guidance, and tout unproven and potentially harmful treatments for COVID-19.’

These policies resulted in the biggest decrease in life expectancy in the US since World War II. In order to deflect from the disastrous public health policies, Trump launched a campaign to lay the blame for the world coronavirus catastrophe on China, which later morphed into the coronavirus lab leak theory of the origins of the pandemic. The science journal Nature has published an account of the impact of the Trump presidency on science.

When Biden came to the presidency, it was on a wave of revulsion at Trump’s policies and their polarising effect on the body politic. In particular, the revulsion of women at Trump’s misogyny was reflected in the largest single day of demonstration in US history – the women’s march in January 2017 – and the largest sustained period of protest in US history led by the Black Lives Matter organisation in the summer of 2020. This revulsion at the Trump presidency led to the largest voter turnout since the beginning of the twentieth century on the basis of an extraordinary mobilisation of the black community in the urban areas, and of mainly women in the suburbs. The result was not only a Biden win, but Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.

These Democratic victories however have led to an immediate Republican counteroffensive aimed at breaking the Democratic electoral coalition in order to lay the basis for a return of a further Trump, or Trumpite administration. The recent elections, particularly the gubernatorial and state house elections in Virginia reveal important clues as to the prospects for a return of the Republicans to Congress and the presidency.

The Virginia elections

Virginia is notable as a former Confederate state since it voted for Biden by 10% over Trump in 2020, as well as flipping both houses of the state legislature from Republican to Democrat. It has also had a Democratic governor continuously since 2014. The recent 2 November election saw the posts of Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General, as well as every seat in the state house, up for election. The results were a sweep of the state-wide elections by narrow margins, and the Republicans gained five seats from the Democrats to take control of the state house. It is instructive to recap the distribution of the votes, which are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Distribution of votes in urban, suburban and rural counties. Taken from The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/elections/election-results/virginia/?itid=sn_elections_1/

It can be seen that consistent with the general pattern nationally, rural counties vote Republican; urban counties vote Democrat; and suburban counties are a major battleground. Therefore, what happens to the vote in the suburbs can be a crucial factor in determining electoral outcomes.

When Democrats took control of the legislature they enacted a voting rights bill which contained many provisions which were present in proposed legislation currently languishing in Congress because of the reluctance of right wing Democrat senators to abolish the Senate filibuster. The overturn of this voting rights legislation will be a key priority of the incoming Republican controlled state house and Governor. However, the real spice was added to the gubernatorial election because of the fact that Democratic candidate, Terry McCauliffe vetoed a Bill sent from the then Republican controlled legislature which sought to enable pupils to opt out of classes based on the material being covered. For Republicans the recent gubernatorial election was a question of payback. Hence, by far the hottest issue was the question of the teaching about race in schools.

According to exit polls registered Democrats and Republicans voted along party lines, largely enabling independents to decide the outcome. In 2020, Biden won among independents by 19% – in the gubernatorial election independents, who comprised 30% of voters, backed the Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin by 9%. In a Fox News poll released at the end of September, half of all independents oppose the teaching of ‘Critical Race Theory’ while only 16% favoured it. The final weeks of campaigning became dominated by toxic school board meetings featuring outbursts over Covid vaccine mandates, Critical Race Theory and transgender rights. In one example, some parents threatened to sue public schools in Loudoun County, a voter rich suburb in northern Virginia, over the introduction of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which were planned throughout the country in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Countering this emphasis of Republicans on schools and Critical Race Theory, McCauliffe highlighted the danger to women posed by the Republican agenda on abortion, especially as shown in the new wave of legislation passed in states like Texas and Mississippi – given that since the passage of the Texas anti-abortion law, similar six week abortion bans have been attempted in several other states. The contest in the crucial suburbs therefore turned on the choice of voters on the question of abortion versus the inclusion of race in the curriculum.

According to the exit polls, out of the 52% of voters that thought that parents should have a lot of say over what their child’s school teaches, 77% of them were Youngkin voters, whereas only 22% were McCauliffe voters. Out of the 32% of all voters that thought parents should have some say, 77% were McCauliffe voters whereas 23% were Youngkin voters. Out of the 10% of all voters who thought parents should have not much say, 86% were McCauliffe voters and 13% were Youngkin voters.

The exit polls reveal instructive information about the demographic composition of the vote. In comparison to the 2020 presidential election 48% of men voted for Trump whereas on 2 November 56% voted for Youngkin – an increase of 8%; 49% voted for Biden whereas 44% voted for McCauliffe. Among women, 38% voted for Trump and 46% voted for Youngkin; 61% voted for Biden and 53% voted for McCauliffe. The increase in the Republican vote among men and women was 8% in both cases.

Independents comprised 30% of all voters. Of these, 38% voted for Trump and 54% voted for Youngkin; 57% voted for Biden and 45% voted for McCauliffe. This means that there was a substantial swing to Republicans among independents.

Interestingly, while there was little movement in the vote of white female college graduates between votes for Trump and votes for Youngkin (18% of all voters), there was a very sizeable shift among white female non-college educated voters (19% of all voters) from 56% voting for Trump to 74% voting for Youngkin. This suggests that among this group the appeal of McCauliffe around the threat of Republican anti-abortion laws was outweighed by their concerns around Critical Race Theory, vaccine mandates and transgender rights.

All of this attention on Critical Race Theory is in fact a device for galvanising the Trump base in the rural counties, and penetrating further into the suburbs. On the same evening as the results from the gubernatorial election were coming in, a memo from Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Banks was issued which outlined four lessons that Republicans should learn from Youngkin’s victory. This was echoed the following day by Congressional House minority leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who said that House Republicans would create a parent’s bill of rights.

Why the emphasis on race in schools?

Professor of political science Stephen Farnsworth from the University of Mary Washington, Virginia has said

“When an issue is working, a candidate is wise to stick with it…Granted, the largely made-up story of critical race theory in Virginia schools is about as relevant to education as death panels was to Obamacare. But they work politically so expect more of them”

It is worth examining the background to this Republican strategy. It has been reported that

“Twenty-seven states have introduced bills this legislative session to ban race-based education under the banner of critical race theory – a decades-old legal theory that considers how slavery and Jim Crow-era politics affect present-day race relations.

“But of these, only a handful mention it by name. And in many cases the legislation reaches well beyond critical race theory by restricting what instructors can teach about race relations.

“Two bills prefiled for the 2022 legislative session in Kentucky would bar concepts related to race, sex, and religion from classroom instruction and subject school district employees who violate the law to disciplinary action.”

In May, Ohio Republicans introduced a bill that limits how racism can be taught.

And a bill introduced by Republican legislators in Wisconsin in June would ban public schools, universities and technical colleges from teaching students and training employees about systemic racism, implicit bias, and similar concepts.”

The governors of Idaho, Iowa, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, New Hampshire and South Carolina have signed these bills into law. Of the twenty seven states that have introduced these bills, seventeen refer to and highlight so called “divisive concepts”, opposition to which motivate proposals first from a memo to heads of executive agencies, followed by an executive order issued by Trump in September 2020, and which bans diversity training and training addressing race from receiving federal funding. These bills which have been introduced into state legislatures, and have been signed into law in some states, adopt these Trumpite principles. Following the results of the Virginia elections Republicans are gaining further penetration in the suburbs by broadening their demonisation of Critical Race Theory precisely by combining it with a narrative about parents rights in education.

The goal has been eloquently put by perhaps the originator of the campaign, Christopher Rufo, who wrote:

“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category”. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

The necessity of igniting ‘culture wars’ in order to deflect popular anger which is bound to develop as a result of the change in the balance of class forces due to the coronavirus pandemic has been discussed previously in relation to the government led racist offensive in the UK. It was explained that the ideological terrain was an imitation of that which had been developed by the 1776 Commision, an advisory body established by Trump in the final months of his administration, and the Trump executive order from the same month mentioned above.

Flowing from this ideological initiative, the 1776 Political Action Committee and the group 1776 Action have led a major effort which has resulted in a wave of conservative victories in school board elections across the country. This is the tip of the spear of the ideological offensive of the Republicans against the Democrats in the key strategic battleground of the suburbs.

Prospects for the midterms

Following the 2 November elections a poll showed that Biden’s approval rating had fallen to an all time low of 38% – lower than after the calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The differences between the parties during Biden’s period in office have so far indicated that Republicans are hardening out their base, and as shown by the Virginia results, are beginning to achieve further penetration in the suburbs, while at the same time the internal polarisation among Democrats is widening. In particular, Trump continues to dominate the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) straw polls, winning in 2021 with 70% ahead of Trumpite Governor of Florida Ron De Santis on 21% despite maintaining the claims of a fraudulent 2020 election result and the ongoing House January 6th Committee investigating the circumstances around the insurrection at the Capitol.

Also, while progressives in the Democratic Party have been defending Biden’s legislative agenda, Biden himself has been making concession after concession to right wing democrats who are intent on sabotaging that agenda. So it can be said that Republicans are consolidating while Democrats are imploding.

Secondly, Republicans have a far superior legislative position in the states. Figure 2 shows the states which have senates controlled by Republicans (red) and Democrats (blue).

Figure 2. Partisan control of state sentates. Taken from Ballotpedia: https://ballotpedia.org/Partisan_composition_of_state_legislatures

Figure 3 similarly shows partisan control of state houses.

Figure 3. Partisan control of state houses. Taken from Ballotpedia: https://ballotpedia.org/Partisan_composition_of_state_legislatures

These indicate precisely the legislative difficulty faced by Democrats. While Congress has been paralysed by the intra-party struggle between progressives and the right wing of the Democratic Party, the Republicans have great opportunities to pass their legislation at state level, and to resist legal challenges since they also control the Supreme Court. In particular, they can use their legislative control of the majority of states to harden out their base by passing extreme measures on a range of issues, including voting rights, abortion, Critical Race theory and coronavirus mask and vaccine mandates.

Also since in many of these states, legislatures are in control of redistricting which arises because of the 2020 population census, partisan gerrymandering will acquire a further major role in the outcome of the midterm elections. Finally, there is the perennial problem of the Supreme Court ruling from 2010 in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which abolished campaign finance restrictions which had been in place for a century, and which enables wealthy donors, corporations and special interests and lobbies to spend unlimited amounts in election campaigning. In particular, this is a major factor working against progressives in the Democratic Party since it allows the right wing to mobilise unlimited cash to keep popular progressive policies from being represented since they will be defeated by money in the primaries – the funding for Shontel Brown to overturn large early poll leads for progressive Nina Turner in the primary for Democratic candidate for the vacant Ohio 11th Congressional District race in early August is a case in point.

Even when progressives win in primaries, as was the case when India Walton, a supporter of the Democratic Socialists of America, defeated incumbent and four times mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown in the Democratic primary, the New York state party establishment failed to campaign for their candidate in the mayoral race, and instead Byron Brown won due to a massive write-in campaign financed partly by Republican donors.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the Virginia elections demonstrate that the key battleground for voters are the suburbs, and that the Republicans are demonstrating a winning suburban strategy igniting ‘culture wars’ clothed in a narrative of parental choice. Combining this with their ability to reduce Democrat votes in urban areas through voter suppression, and their command of redistricting in very many states, gives them a major advantage into the midterms. If they manage to flip both houses of Congress the Biden administration and the Democratic Party face the prospect of an approach to the 2024 general election where all the cards are held by the Republicans.