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The Nation’s John Nichols: Democrats Must Deliver on Promises or Voters Will Punish the Party

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We speak with The Nation’s John Nichols about key outcomes from Tuesday’s election night. In a major blow for Democrats, Republican Glenn Youngkin, who President Biden warned is an extremist in the vein of former President Trump, won the Virginia governor’s race against former Governor Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin campaigned for so-called parents’ rights — a catch-all phrase adopted by right-wing opponents of vaccine and mask mandates, transgender rights and critical race theory. Tuesday’s elections also saw closely watched races in New Jersey, New York City, Buffalo and Boston, where Michelle Wu made history by becoming the first woman and first person of color elected as mayor. Nichols says disappointing results for Democrats are tied to the party’s infighting in Washington and the inability to pass major legislation despite holding the White House and Congress: “You can’t fail to deliver on your promises and then expect to win elections. And that’s a big message for Democrats.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a blow to Democrats, Republicans have won the governor’s race in Virginia with the wealthy private equity executive Glenn Youngkin defeating former Governor Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin campaigned in part by vowing to support so-called parents’ rights, which has become a catch-all phrase to describe right-wing opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, trans rights for students and the teaching of critical race theory. Youngkin spoke at a victory party in Chantilly, Virginia.

GOV.-ELECT GLENN YOUNGKIN: My fellow Virginians, this is our moment. It’s our moment for parents, for grandparents, for aunts, for uncles, for neighbors to change the future of Virginia’s children’s lives, to change their Virginia journey. It’s our time to turn that vision into a reality.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in New Jersey, the governor’s race is too close to call, as Republican Jack Ciattarelli has a slight lead over incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy.

To talk about the governor’s races, we’re joined by John Nichols. He’s The Nation’s national affairs correspondent, author of a number of books, including The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.

So, let’s start in Virginia, John. Talk about the significance of the Republican victory for governor, about Youngkin’s campaign. And then we’ll move to New Jersey, where it’s clearly too close to call, though main Democratic strongholds have not been counted yet.

JOHN NICHOLS: That’s precisely right, Amy. And thanks for having me.

Let’s start in Virginia. And I think that the first thing to point out is, of course, this is an off-year election in which there’s clearly an overlay from what’s going on in Washington, and Virginia, northern Virginia, in particular, is suburban Washington, so there’s a lot of consciousness about where the Biden administration is at and things of that nature.

But once we put that, you know, in its place, then I think it’s important to understand what happened in Virginia, and that is that Virginia Democrats chose to nominate what they thought was a very safe candidate, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor. He beat a number of other candidates in the Democratic primary, with most of Democratic leadership saying, “Well, this is the easiest way to retain the governorship.” But McAuliffe ran what can best be understood as an unfocused and bumbling campaign, in many instances.

On the other hand, Republicans nominated a candidate who was untested, Glenn Youngkin, but who was very sophisticated, very disciplined in his approach. And what he did was, at once, embrace Donald Trump’s constituency — I mean, actually, clearly accept Trump’s support and clearly, you know, communicate that he was on board with a lot of where Trump was at — but at the same time, in his overall messaging, seek to identify himself with just enough distance that he could appeal to folks who don’t necessarily like Donald Trump.

Now, it’s notable, in the exit polls, he got almost one in five of his votes from people who said they don’t approve of Trump. So he was getting people who had undoubtedly voted for Joe Biden in 2020 to come over. How did he do that? He did it with a combination of sort of soft messaging about his actually very right-wing proposals and very right-wing stance on the issues, and a dog-whistling use of the issue of critical race theory that the Republicans have developed. And this is obviously an effort to suggest that parents should be far more in control of curriculums in schools and, frankly, that they should be able to dictate a curriculum that doesn’t acknowledge much of the history of the United States, or at least soft pedals it. And Youngkin did that in very sophisticated ways. There is simply no question that what he did in Virginia will become a template for Republicans in other states.

But there’s also one counsel. While there is a lot of focus on critical race theory and how it was played in Virginia, in school board races around the country, including one in my own state of Wisconsin, where school boards were threatened with recall on critical race issues and on all this, in many cases the school board members won their fights. They weren’t recalled. And one of the reasons for that is that, in, for instance, the Wisconsin case, they directly confronted the issue. They said, “You know, look, this is a Republican political strategy. It is an attempt to dog whistle and to exploit.” In Virginia, I think the message from the Democrats on that was quite muddled, in many cases. They did try to confront it in some ways, but I don’t think that they did very well.

End of the day, if I had to divide up what the impacts were on Virginia, I would say that the quality, the character of the Youngkin campaign did benefit, but also the biggest influence there, in my opinion, is the fact that the Democrats in Washington have seemed extremely chaotic, even dysfunctional, in recent months. And the truth is, they control the White House and the Congress, and you can’t fail to deliver on your promises and then expect to win elections. And that’s a big message for Democrats.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, John, I wanted to ask you, putting Virginia in context with New Jersey, as well, because I think it’s likely that Phil Murphy is going to win the New Jersey race, even though he’s slightly behind right now, only because, as Amy mentioned, a lot of the Democratic strongholds, including Camden, which had the lowest returns so far, are likely to push him over. Nonetheless, he was expected to win by much more, if he does become the victor. So, it does seem to me that at least in these races where you essentially had corporate Democrats, in both Phil Murphy and Terry McAuliffe, running, that the ability — their ability to make the race against Trump, rather than for themselves, like, suffered greatly. And I’m wondering your sense of, given the fact that the right-wing populism of Trump is still surging in a lot of parts of the country, what this means for elections next year.

JOHN NICHOLS: I think it means a lot, and I think your analysis is very strong. My sense is that Murphy will win in New Jersey, and I think it’s important to note that Murphy ran a much more focused campaign and, frankly, a more progressive campaign, on message and, frankly, on some of his record, than you had from McAuliffe. Ultimately, I think Murphy is probably going to win by a reasonably comfortable margin, not a big landslide or anything like that, but reasonably comfortable, when all the votes are counted. But still, it’s much closer than it should be, by any reasonable measure.

And then I’d also throw in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race, a statewide race in a battleground state, where the Republican appears to have prevailed. And so, what you see from a number of states where you’ve got statewide races, where they really are tests of kind of where people are going to vote and kind of where the pattern is, in each case, the Republicans prevailed.

I think that, again, there’s two things in play here. Number one, what you point out, the Democratic Party continues — and they especially did this in Virginia — they continue to reject candidates of the future — and these are women, people of color, progressives — in favor of candidates of the past, candidates who often have held office before or are holding office and are very, very predictable. And at this moment, at this volatile moment, that doesn’t work very well.

Secondly, however, you do have this national overlay, and I think it’s a big deal. The Democrats have, since midsummer, sent a signal of, “Yeah, we’ve got lots of big plans. We’ve got lots of big goals. We control the presidency. We control the House and the Senate. But we’re not delivering. We can’t get it together. We can’t even get our own people together.” And it’s very easy to blame Joe Manchin and to blame Kyrsten Sinema — and they deserve a lot of blame on this. But there also has to be a recognition that the Biden administration, Democratic leaders in Congress, did not follow the advice of Senator Bernie Sanders, the Senate Budget Committee chair, and of Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, who said, “Look, you need to go out and sell this program. You need to talk about it in big, bold ways across the country so people really know everything that’s in this Build Back Better agenda, and they know what’s at stake.” They didn’t do that. They relied on kind of insider, predictable, back-door, behind-the-scenes negotiations. And it didn’t work. President Biden flew off to Europe with a framework that Joe Manchin didn’t support. And so, at the end of the day, Democrats are in a situation where they’ve promised a lot, but they have not delivered. And you cannot fail to deliver and expect to win elections.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn to some of the mayoral races, several closely watched ones. In Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown has claimed victory in his write-in campaign against India Walton, who shocked Brown in June by winning the Democratic primary. She was attempting to become the first socialist to lead a big city in decades. Here in New York City — and I want Juan to also weigh in on this — Eric Adams easily won the mayoral race, becoming just the second African American to head the nation’s largest city. In Minneapolis, Mayor Jacob Frey is in the lead after the first round of the city’s ranked-choice vote. And in Boston, Michelle Wu has made history by becoming the first woman, the first person of color elected as mayor. She spoke Tuesday night.

MAYOR-ELECT MICHELLE WU: We are ready to become a Boston for everyone. We’re ready to be a Boston that doesn’t push people out but welcomes all who call our city home. We’re ready to be a Boston where all can afford to stay and to thrive. And, yes, Boston is ready to become a Green New Deal city.

AMY GOODMAN: “A Green New Deal city,” says the new Mayor-elect of Boston Michelle Wu, a protégé of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. John Nichols, the mayoral races around the country?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I’m glad you focused on Michelle Wu there. I think her victory is incredibly instructive, and it hasn’t been covered enough by much of the national media. Michelle Wu ran as a progressive. She started early. She built a grassroots, multiracial, multiethnic coalition. She focused on big issues, with big messages. And she won big. She did very well in the primary; in the general election, prevailed. I think there’s a lot of lessons there as regards our politics, because, remember, Boston is not a city that has had a lot of diversity in its mayors. They’ve tended to be Irish or Italian, you know, from Irish and Italian backgrounds, for generations. And also, it’s a city with some pretty tough, very competitive politics. And so, there you see a Elizabeth Warren progressive prevail, talking about the Green New Deal, talking about economic and social and racial justice, talking about affordable housing. So it’s doable, and I think that’s an important message.

In the mayoral races in general, Democrats prevailed, but you saw very different types of Democrats prevail, very different messages — some, like Michelle Wu, very progressive; some, like Eric Adams in New York, who have been very critical, at least of Democratic Socialists.

And then, up in Buffalo, you have this situation where — and it’s really a notable situation in Buffalo, where India Walton won her primary fair and square. She built a grassroots campaign. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she had a lot of message. She is very, very engaged with housing issues and a lot of issues that are vital to Buffalo. She got the nomination. And then two things happened. Number one, the leadership of the state Democratic Party in New York, including the chair of the state Democratic Committee, Governor Hochul and others, failed to endorse her. They failed to come in and give her strong backing. Secondly, a lot of very, very wealthy and powerful interests, in Buffalo and outside of Buffalo, poured money into Byron Brown’s campaign. He raised more than $1.5 million — we don’t know what the final total will be — flooded the TV airwaves with ads that were, you know, obviously, very supportive of him, but also a lot of messaging that was very negative about India Walton. And you really see a situation here where somebody won the Democratic nomination but didn’t get the level of support from the Democratic Party that might have allowed her to prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, I wanted to ask you, before we move on, about Eric Adams, someone you have covered for years, police captain, a Brooklyn borough president, a state legislator, and now he has become the second African American who will become mayor of New York, talked about being learning disabled, wept when he went to the polls yesterday holding his mother’s picture, who just died, was beaten by police and arrested as a young person, took on the New York Police Department. The significance of his win, though against the defund movement?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I think, as I’ve said before, I’ve known Eric Adams since he was just a police sergeant, more than 30 years ago, and I worked with him closely over the years as a reporter. And I think that, you know, his victory — and I’d like to also toss this to John Nichols, in terms of what’s happened with India Walton and Minneapolis, what happened with the Minneapolis police referendum, as well — seems to indicate that a lot of African American and Latino voters are not as in sync with the progressive left on issues of police reform. And I think that because the African American and Latino vote is such a big portion of the Democratic Party, I think that folks are going to have to come to some realization of what is possible within a capitalist system and within a situation where corporate Democrats also wield an enormous influence and finances in terms of elections. And I’m wondering, John, whether you see that, with the exception of Michelle Wu, a lot of the results this time around were not only a rebuke of the more corporate Democrats, but also, to some degree, a rebuke of the more left-wing proposals of progressives, as well.

JOHN NICHOLS: Right. You saw a direct test — Minneapolis, where a proposal to really change the policing structure in that city, from a more traditional one with, frankly, a police force very influenced by a very right-wing union to a public safety model, and that lost. It didn’t lose by a massive landslide, but it did lose. And so, at the end of the day, I think that there is evidence that there’s resistance here.

But I would emphasize — and I think this is important to recognize — that if you look at all of these races, you see an acknowledgment of the need to change policing. It is a debate about how to do so and about how to message that. But I would be careful about saying that, you know, there’s a full-on rejection of some of the left’s messages about the need for a change in policing. I think there is still a constituency for that and a base for that. It’s just I do think that there’s going to be some wrestling with it. And Democrats, frankly, are going to have to figure out how to talk about the need to change policing in a way that can build out confidence and build out constituencies.

I will note also, and I think this is —

AMY GOODMAN: We have 15 seconds.

JOHN NICHOLS: It’s just important to note that in New York City, while Eric Adams won big, and for a variety of reasons, that Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander, both very, very progressive candidates, won the other two citywide races by equally large margins. And so, I think that we can take many signals from this election. And I do think we should pay attention not just to the top-level wins, but some of those wins down ballot, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you for being with us, John Nichols, The Nation’s national affairs correspondent, author of a number of books, including The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.

Next up, we go to Glasgow to the U.N. summit to look at the fight against Big Coal, from South Africa to Puerto Rico, with Kumi Naidoo and Ruth Santiago and leading Filipina youth climate activist Mitzi Tan. Stay with us. Back in 30 seconds.

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