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Instead of playing into identity politics, Democrats need to prioritize advertising their policies.

Virginia has historically been categorized as a “purple state.” However, within the last few years, there’s been a shift from purple to blue. Democrats occupied the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. This “blue wave” came as a direct response to the presidential nomination of Donald Trump in 2016 and resulted in Democrats controlling a majority of positions — until this year. 

Democrats lost all political control of the state in the recent Virginia election. This defeat was suffered due to an overused message connecting Youngkin to Trump and a lack of appeal to moderate voters. Democrats need to learn from this defeat in order to bounce back in upcoming elections.

The gubernatorial race is the most expensive campaign run in Virginia. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, $105 million was spent on campaign finance by the two candidates, with McAuliffe spending the most at $55 million. McAuliffe’s campaign spent $26 million on pro-McAuliffe and anti-Youngkin advertisements.

A majority of ads run by McAuliffe and other Virginia democrats focused on Donald Trump’s endorsement of Glenn Youngkin prior to his nomination for governor. Seventy-five percent  of McAuliffe’s ads used this comparison in an attempt to mobilize Democrat and moderate voters who aren’t accepting of the former president’s policies and constituency. McAuliffe was effective in cementing the link between Youngkin and Trump in the minds of Virginians, but it ultimately led to a defeat. 

Why did such a strong message result in a loss for Democrats? 

Although consistency is a vital part of political campaign messaging, the oversaturation of this message may have caused voters to grow tired of hearing it repeated.  

Carson Sullivan, a sophomore history major and vice president of Young Democrats Socialist of America at JMU, agrees.

“You can’t build an entire platform on Donald Trump being a bad president,” Sullivan said. “Consistent messaging becomes too much when you only have two messages to perform — when your message is stagnant, that’s when it really falls off. You just sound like a broken record.”   

McAuliffe’s messages about Youngkin’s connection to Trump and his previous position as governor were solid options in the beginning but should’ve changed when they failed to attract more voters. As the polls continued to show a toss-up for the position, the message still wasn’t changed. Ads focused on attacking the connection rolled out until Election Day. A different approach could’ve drawn out more voters who would’ve liked to hear more policy options 

Although the party is unified through its identity against Trump, a shift has caused division among themselves. 

Currently, Democrats face an internal conflict within their party. Legislation that’s gridlocked in Congress points to disagreement between more liberal- and progressive-minded members of the Democratic coalition. This shift is causing a divide between consistency of stances on issues.

In order to win more elections, Democrats need to prioritize advertising their policies instead of playing into identity politics. Young voters often care about issues such as environmental policy, gun reform and health care, so creating more messaging surrounding those issues will draw in more voters.

For Democrats to win future elections, they need to learn from the mistakes made in 2021. They need to unify the party, appeal to more moderate voters and shift messages when theirs isn’t working. With this in mind, Virginia Democrats could reclaim their lost seats.

Luke Pineda is a junior political science major. Contact Luke at pinedalm@dukes.jmu.edu.