‘Trump Lite’ Wins in Virginia: What Does It Mean for the Dems’ Agenda?
On this episode of democracy-ish, Danielle is joined by guest Charles D. Ellison, a Philadelphia talk radio host, political commentator and activist, to talk about WTF happened in Virginia.
In a dramatic upset, GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin defeated longtime Democratic politico and former governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
Youngkin’s campaign focused on mobilizing white suburbanites against critical race theory, which he falsely claimed is taught in Virginia schools.
The Virginia race wasn’t the only loss for Dems this week. Republicans picked up seats in Pennsylvania courts, while the incumbent governor of super-blue New Jersey only narrowly won against his GOP rival. Does this herald a resurgence of Trumpism, and are the days of our current Democratic majority numbered?
As this off-year election season drew to a close, all eyes were on Virginia this week, where Glenn Youngkin, a political “outsider,” private-equity multimillionaire and friend/donor to Ted Cruz — won the gubernatorial race over former governor Terry McAuliffe, 50.9% to 48.4%.
Though polls suggested the race was tight, it was still a stunning defeat for McAuliffe, a former DNC chair and chair of both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns who sat in the Virginia governor’s mansion just four years ago.
Youngkin, who many are calling Trump lite (“he gives you all of the Trump ideology without all of the bluster,” says Danielle) is anti-choice, against gun-control legislation and personally opposes same-sex marriage. But the centerpiece of his campaign was education, which included opposing protections for transgender students and holding “Parents Matter” rallies to mobilize voters against critical race theory in schools. (It’s not part of the curriculum, and there’s little evidence it is taught in classrooms.)
“I’ve said for many years that so long as Republicans could find somebody that was a little bit more fine tuned, a little bit more strategic than Donald Trump, then 2020 would have looked a lot different than it did,” Danielle says.
“We’ve all seen better days,” adds this week’s guest on democracy-ish, Charles D. Ellison. Charles is a veteran political strategist, Philly native and host of the daily talk radio show Reality Check on WURD.
He thinks the loss in Virginia is a “public policy disaster for our communities” — and worse, an electoral disaster for Democrats with far-reaching implications as we head into 2022. What should liberals do to stem the oncoming red tide? Charles and Danielle have some ideas.
Episode Highlights –– The New Red Scare
Youngkin lacks the ‘Trump ooze’ but has a strong whiff of Jim Crow
Danielle asks Charles his thoughts on why, after a decade, Virginia flipped from blue to red.
“On WURD, I speak primarily to a Black audience,” he says. “People are in a real depressed, defeated state right now. But we saw the signs.”
Charles points out that Republicans are looking for candidates that are “a little less Trumpian cosmetically … someone a little bit more polished, a little bit more telegenic, younger — who didn’t give off that kind of Trump aura or Trump ooze. They had that in Glenn Youngkin.”
He doesn’t understand why Terry McAuliffe, who served as Virginia governor just before Ralph Northam (who currently holds the office), didn’t run on his “decent record.”
The Old Dominion is close to his heart. His mother’s family hails from Virginia; his grandmother fled the segregated south as part of the Great Migration.
“I always want to see things work out in Virginia,” Charles says. “Virginia has an electorate that’s over a quarter Black, and that Black electorate is the key to winning decisive elections.”
Charles thinks Glenn Youngkin ran on returning the state to the kind of place it was 50 or 60 years ago, “when they were just wrapping up legal Jim Crow in Virginia,” he says. “I was born at that time. I remember those stories.”
He wonders how McAuliffe missed the opportunity to “counteract and re-portray [Youngkin] as the Jim Crow candidate,” which would both “activate and motivate and energize that Black electorate” while providing a vision to move forward.
Dems are the Rebel Alliance, and that’s OK
“Democrats have to embrace the fact that they are the Black, brown, indigenous, Asian people’s party. They’re the BIPOC party. It’s okay. They are the coalition party. They’re the Rebel Alliance party.”
On the other hand, “if you’re a Republican, your job is easy,” he adds. “Because all you’ve got to do is worry about white people.”
He argues that Democrats have to be “a little bit more creative and innovative” in their outreach to nonwhite voters and that they should “stop hiring these very expensive white political strategists who are dismissive of the power of Black, brown, indigenous, but especially Black voters in key places like Virginia.”
Terry McAuliffe, he points out, hired and “overpaid” white campaign managers and political strategists. Democrats, at least in this election, “didn’t want to pay very seasoned Black political practitioners whom I know personally in the state of Virginia, who got the job done in 2017 and got Ralph Northam in that position right now.”
Black political operatives are the ones who call attention to untapped Black voters and do the on-the-ground organizing that’s necessary for turnout. “It’s like, we show them [white strategists] constantly. We’re constantly teaching them these lessons, and they ignore them when we come down to the wire.”
Danielle adds that in 2017, we also saw “what I always thought was the impossible happen in Alabama: A Democratic U.S. senator got elected in a state that is the most red of red states.”
That happened because “Black women rallied to the cause and said, We don’t want this pedophile representing us. We don’t want this racist representing us. And that was with the absence of money from the DNC.”
The hits (and misses) keep on coming in Pennsylvania
While the Virginia race made headlines, several crucial elections took place in Pennsylvania this week as well, for a number of seats on the state Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Commonwealth Court (Pennsylvania voters are asked every two years to vote for judges at every level of the court system).
This cycle, two Black women, both Democrats, ran for the Pennsylvania Superior and Commonwealth Courts. The latter, notes Charles, “was the only court in the country that voted for Trump when he was trying to reverse the 2020 Pennsylvania election results.”
And yet that wasn’t a talking point Democrats emphasized, at least not enough to prevent the GOP from winning both of those seats. Charles sees the judicial races in Pennsylvania as yet another missed opportunity, and perhaps one that would’ve been an easy win with the right resources.
“How do you mess that up?” he asks.
‘Red Scare’ tactics
Charles says the losses in Virginia and Pennsylvania suggest that Democrats, “especially white Democrats, want to be dismissive of the kind of electoral flex that we can offer them.”
He wants to make clear that he’s “not cheerleading for Democrats,” but he doesn’t “want the party that represents domestic terrorists getting any more foothold than they already have. And they’re the only alternative we have right now.”
Danielle agrees wholeheartedly.
“The fact is that Democrats are the BIPOC party, but instead of embracing that truth, instead of understanding that we have a demographic shift we all know is impending,” we’ve let Republicans use it to their advantage.
“They have used it as a fear tactic,” she adds. “This is the new Red Scare.”
From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, people like Senator Joseph McCarthy, President Truman and J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI used “relentless tactics” to scare Americans into believing Communism was an imminent threat among the citizenry and they “needed to use undemocratic tactics to suss out those people, suss out those revolutionaries,” she explains. “This is what Republicans are doing right now.”
Scranton is the Dems’ dog whistle, but they need new tricks
Of course, instead of the (nonexistent) threat of Communism, the modern GOP has chosen critical race theory as its new Boogeyman, says Danielle.
“And before that, it was: We can’t take down Confederate statues, because that is our history. Then it was BLM and Antifa in 2020.”
None of this is new — “they give us the playbook,” she argues. “We see what they are doing.”
But time and time again, Democrats seem to spend an overwhelming share of their energy (and money) appealing to a certain segment of voters. Danielle notes that a few weeks ago, President Biden went to Scranton again — “which is Democrats’ dog whistle to say, Hey, working white class people, we see you as if they are the only working class.”
However, even a cursory look at the demographics reveals that the majority of working class Americans are Black and brown, and largely women.
“So how is it that we are still chasing after the latest polls, which show that 56% of non-college-educated white women voted for Youngkin?” Danielle asks. “Who did they vote for in 2020? Trump. Tell me why cable news and why all of these outlets and politicians continue to run after white women, when it’s the BIPOC community they should be investing in?”
The swing voter is a myth
The numbers bear that out: Dems “should absolutely be investing in” Black communities and other communities of color, says Charles. He uses his home state of Pennsylvania as an example, which has proven in the last few cycles to be a critical battleground state.
“It was the state that was decisive in Trump’s win, just like it was decisive in Biden’s win in 2020. But we saw hundreds of thousands of untapped Black voters.”
He cites an op-ed by Howard University business professor Karthik Balasubramanian — “one of the best pieces of 2020,” says Charles — that analyzes voter data from several critical states and argues that Black voters were largely ignored.
But it’s important to understand that “there is no such thing as a swing voter,” says Charles. “It’s just white voters — white voters who don’t like you.”
The hard truth: Some white voters will just never vote for a Black candidate, or a Democrat, or anyone who doesn’t look like them. Some white voters will dislike Democrats because, especially in certain areas of the country, there’s a “a heavy, influential Black presence in the party dictating the terms of the agenda,” he says.
‘Fear of a Black electorate’
Even in Democratic strongholds like New Jersey, where incumbent Phil Murphy just narrowly edged out GOP rival Jack Ciattarelli, white suburbanites are voting for Republicans in growing numbers (and voting against ballot measures to enhance voting rights). Charles points out that not only are we seeing the same trend in Pennsylvania and Virginia, but even New York state.
“Public Enemy used to say, ‘fear of a Black Planet.’ This is fear of a Black electorate — anytime we start seeing Black voters, especially flexing their political muscle.”
The only way to fight that fear is for Dems to stop chasing the “Karens” and start building real rapport with communities that will actually be receptive to their agenda.
A BIPOC-centric coalition would comprise “essential Black voters, essential brown voters — and you might have some Latinos who will probably go Republican — but for the most part, you’ve got that locked,” says Charles.
That’s to say nothing of other groups that tend to vote blue, like indigenous voters as well as Asian voters. (Charles points out the rise of South Asian voters in places like Georgia in 2020.) There will also be a number of white voters, “particularly younger, college-educated white voters, who are going to align with us,” he says.
“So let’s keep building on that, because demographically, that’s where we’re headed. That’s where we are as a country.”
Black turnout in Virginia was low, but white rage was in full force
Charles thinks the fear of a Black electorate creates a conundrum for Black voters, “because we do have a responsibility as a Black electorate to flex every time there is an election cycle. And there’s going to be an election cycle [somewhere] — state, local, federal — every six months.”
But in every cycle, “we make a mad dash to frantically get people to register to vote and to turn out to vote,” he says. “All of this should be rote. It should be just automatic, but it’s not.”
That’s because, as Charles observes, it “doesn’t seem like we’re getting the kind of mobilization support we need.”
Danielle argues that it’s because Democrats don’t put enough money in Black communities, and yet those same communities are often blamed for losses.
“I heard it right after the number started to switch in Virginia,” she says. “I heard white pundits on television saying, Well, Black turnout was really low. Well, wait a minute. White rage turnout was really high. Tell me why we aren’t having a segment on that.”
Dems go for easy wins while Repubs play the long game
In red states where Republicans see opportunity — whether it’s coming 10, 20, 30 or 40 years down the road — the DNC writes off swaths of voters, thinking, “Well, if this is not going to be an easy win, we’re not going to put the investment there,” Danielle argues.
“Their assumption is that Black people have no place to go. So they don’t need to give them anything — where are they going to go? The neo-fascist confederates?”
The thing is, though, “Black people always have a choice,” she adds.
She argues that the Democrats who lost key state-level races were also harmed by their colleagues in Congress, who haven’t delivered everything they promised. (“They couldn’t just run on not being Trump,” says Danielle.)
And she thinks two people are to blame: Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kirsten Sinema of Arizona. They’re the ones who didn’t want to get rid of “the racist institution we know as the filibuster, who did not want to vote for voting rights, who did not want to put together a bipartisan infrastructure bill and get it passed.”
A lost opportunity for subsidized childcare in the BBB plan
Charles points out that just 10% of Americans know what’s in Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
“We’ve been having this months-long conversation about this $3.5 trillion bill ... It’s like Biden is thinking he can get this done through, like, having people watch the negotiations and we’re just going to just magically understand what everyone is doing and what they’re talking about.
But because the vast majority of people don’t understand the bill, “we just lost a 5% cap on childcare expenses,” says Charles. “Can you imagine? The average household spends 50% of their income on childcare.”
As a father of three, he knows just how huge that could’ve been. “We missed a golden opportunity,” he says. “And it was just $3.5 trillion — $350 billion a year over 10 years. We were getting that cheap. How could you fail to sell that?”
While Joe Manchin “is like, I gotta look out for my coal people,” Charles adds, the Democrats aren’t coming up with counter-messaging.
“An easy counter message to that is like, Okay, Joe. You can stick over here with the old-school, fossil fuel economy, which last I checked is losing jobs and losing market share,” he says. “Or you could go to a new-school, clean energy economy, and get your folks in West Virginia on board. That’s creating jobs right now, way faster.”
He thinks Democrats and “even some progressives are too cerebral. You’ve got to be punchy and come up with crystal-clear, sharp messaging … Republicans are very good at that. They come up with very crisp, repetitive messaging.”
Black-owned radio station WURD won Philly (and the state’s 20 electoral votes)
Making investments in BIPOC communities will be more important than ever as we head into 2022. That’s something Charles thinks DNC Chair Jamie Harrison should know by now. But he also thinks the Dems need to have “constant, daily conversations with community and BIPOC media, especially Black media.
As the only Black-owned talk media station in the entire state of Pennsylvania, he feels confident asserting that WURD won Philadelphia, and thus Pennsylvania, for the Democrats and for Biden in 2020 — “full stop,” he says. “We did it because we’re the Black super voters’ station. We set the tone.”
Right now, it seems as if the Democratic establishment is “just expecting us to watch and to trust white-owned, predominately white [-run] media, like CNN or MSNBC.”
But as a longtime radio host at WURD, he knows motivated voters in BIPOC communities “trust their own outlets and their own platforms that they listen to every day, whether we’re talking about politics or whether we’re running through the top 40 hip-hop songs of the day.”
Too often, the state and national Democratic committees “refuse to make those kinds of investments or they do it at the very last minute. They give us the crumbs after they’ve spent all their money on predominantly white media. And they need to do it in terms of consultants and strategic advice. They’re still relying on the same recycled, overworn strategists, practitioners and playbooks.”
Complacency crushes Dems’ hopes
As crushing as these off-year Democratic losses are, for years we’ve seen “flashes” of possibility in terms of the party making inroads in formerly red or purple states. (The power of Doug Jones’ 2017 Senate victory in Alabama can’t be overstated.) But Charles thinks there are other states that offer “potential pickups for Democrats, even in the South.”
He says there should be no reason why in southern states like Mississippi, where 35 to 40% of the electorate is Black, that Dems can’t win a Senate seat. In fact, Mississippi is the state with the highest percentage of Black citizens, yet it has never had a Black U.S. senator.
Charles argues that “we have gotten complacent, as a Black political, Black media, Black advocacy, Black practitioner class … We’re not understanding or recognizing or remembering where we came from, who our original constituency is. We need to go back to the block and listen.”
Charles’ ℞: ‘Reattach the detachment’
Just this week, Charles attended “an election cycle tradition” for Black elected officials to “hobnob” at a Black-owned restaurant in Philadelphia. It was the first time he had ever participated in the event.
“I was looking around like, You folks don’t get it. They were all just casual. There was no sense of urgency. It was like the times that we live in are not precarious and everything’s okay. And then look at what happened. We had losses across the board.”
He thinks that among Black politicos, “there’s this detachment, and we have to reattach it.”
Charles points out that “we perfected voter and grassroots mobilization as a Black political media advocacy class during the Civil Rights Movement, even before then … We need to revisit and reintroduce those lessons and those strategies and methods.”
He notes that white evangelicals ripped those strategies “right out of our playbook — the way we activate large voting blocs and populations, and even take over things like school board meetings.”
Charles sees Tuesday’s losses as an “epic failure” of messaging and that the Black political and media class “needs to take some blame.”
‘Purge the police’ would’ve worked better
Danielle wants to squeeze in one last topic before the show wraps up: “what Minneapolis lost” this week when a ballot measure failed to “defund the police” — or more precisely, “reorder funds into more of a community-centric safety committee, where the police would not have as much power as they do,” she explains.
She isn’t shocked by the fact that the ballot measure failed, but notes that it was the first time such a matter was put to a public vote. She asks Charles: “Where do you think this conversation goes next, in terms of defunding the police and reimagining what public safety looks like?”
Charles, who comes from a messaging strategy background, feels like “defund the police,” just as a phrase, is “a little bit misplaced.” He does think law enforcement needs to be reinvented and reimagined, that a “dramatic overhaul of the police has to happen” in order to transition from policing to public safety.
He would’ve gone for something more like “purge the police,” he says, “When you start talking to the electorate, you have to understand that half the country doesn’t read above a sixth grade reading proficiency. So folks who are trying to push sinister agendas are able to do that very easily, because people are not very literate. You’re going to have to be very ‘Schoolhouse Rock’ about your messages.”
Plus, he points out that we need phrasing “that’s not about taking things away from something or someone,” but instead focuses on what you’re going to give to people.”
We need a ‘new paradigm’ to combat high crime (and underperforming cops)
Another thing that happened in Minneapolis — “and we haven’t been having a national conversation about as a Black community,” says Charles — “is there are really high surges of violence in major urban centers, including Minneapolis. So people are scared, a