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The Right Note: Six things we learned from the 2021 elections

The Right Note is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Virginia voters shook up the national political landscape two weeks ago by electing a Republican statewide ticket just one year after giving Joe Biden a 10% victory.

No doubt, the race was influenced by the current national political environment, including soaring prices of just about everything. But what can Independents and Republican here in Arlington learn from these results?

1. Contrary to some Democrat claims, turnout was not the reason Democrats lost. 2021 saw the most voters ever go to the polls in a gubernatorial election. Across Virginia 54.9% of voters went to the polls this year, up from 47.6% in 2017 and 43% in 2013. Terry McAuliffe received nearly 200,000 more raw votes than Ralph Northam did and still lost by more than 60,000 votes.

2. The Republican statewide ticket made gains in virtually every jurisdiction, including right here in Arlington versus 2020. Governor-Elect Youngkin’s increase of 5.5% of the vote versus President Trump in Arlington nearly equaled his statewide increase of 6.5%. Youngkin did it by communicating on kitchen table issues across Virginia.

3. This election demonstrated a rural rejection of, and suburban reaction to, the Virginia, and in some ways national, Democrats’ leftward policy march. Democrats in Northern Virginia seem to believe they simply have a communication problem, and not a policy problem, when it comes to the disconnect with rural voters. That gap will widen if Democrats insist on telling rural, and even some suburban, voters they are wrong on the issues.

4. For example, parents do not want to be told they have no role in their child’s education. In what was one of the most tone-deaf statements ever, Terry McAuliffe effectively told parents — who were rightly concerned about everything from learning loss, to curriculum, to mandates, to school safety — to sit down and shut up. McAuliffe continued to double down on the sentiment through his closing campaign rally when he invited the national leader of teachers’ unions to be a featured speaker. And McAuliffe was not helped by the Biden Justice Department announcement that they would be using the FBI to investigate parents at school board meetings.

5. Here in Arlington, the Democrat sample ballot remains extremely difficult to beat. From the school bond to the Governor’s race, there was little doubt about how election day would go here in our 26 square miles. Only John Vihstadt has overcome the Democrats sample ballot endorsement in recent memory.

6. However, despite overwhelming support for the Democrat statewide ticket, Arlington voters have not moved very far when it comes to local issues. When I ran for County Board in 2010, Democrat Chris Zimmerman received 58% of the vote versus my 38% (Audrey Clement received the remainder). Zimmerman ran just 5% behind the “top of the ticket,” which that year was Congressman Jim Moran. This year Takis Karantonis received just 60% of the vote compared to nearly 77% for Terry McAuliffe. Running nearly 17% behind the top of the ticket is hardly an overwhelming vote of confidence in how things are going.

Moving forward, we may not yet be able to see a path on the horizon for a Republican to win Arlington in a statewide contest. However, there is still a coalition available of Republicans, Independents and concerned Democrats who would vote for local County Board and School Board candidates who campaign on the right set of issues.

Mark Kelly is a long-time Arlington resident, former Arlington GOP Chairman and two-time Republican candidate for Arlington County Board.

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