Virginia’s 2021 elections were challenging for Democrats. Nearly a week later, votes continue to be counted in the two races that could leave the House in a partisan tie — Sister District candidates Alex Askew and Martha Mugler. As we’ve written, the Sister District community had a tremendous and creative year providing fundraising, field support, and candidate services support to our largely incumbent class, and made a significant impact in holding some critically important seats.

But we won’t sugarcoat it: the overall results were disappointing, with Democrats losing the Governorship and the House. At Sister District, we know we must be invested in the long game. To build enduring progressive power in state legislatures, we have to be ready for wins and losses. Our work is permanent. There is no finish line, regardless of the outcome in any given year. We are committed — together — to stay in the fight.

The question on many people’s minds is — what happened in Virginia, and what does it mean for Democrats’ future prospects? The first thing to keep in mind is, beware hot takes. We should all be wary of takes that proclaim to fully understand Tuesday’s results or that make bold claims about what they mean for the future. Keep in mind that the Virginia voter file, which will show who voted in the election (but not who they voted for), won’t be available for analysis until the new year. And also keep in mind that when Virginia expanded early voting as part of its legislation to expand voting rights, it did not create a way to tabulate early vote by legislative district. That means that there is currently no way to see how many people voted for, say, Terry McAuliffe, in Alex Askew’s district. Colleagues in the data community and others are working on a fix, but that will take awhile. So in the meantime, there are serious limitations to anyone’s ability to make bold or decisive claims about certain types of Virginia results.

Ok, now that we’ve got some caveats out of the way, let’s talk about what we do know. There are a few takeaways that are already clear from last week’s results. Read on for a few early thoughts, given the information that is already available.

Early voting is not a Democratic panacea

We said this last year, and we’ll say it again: any conventional wisdom that early and absentee vote overwhelmingly benefits Democrats needs to be put permanently to bed. It’s just not true. It wasn’t true last year, and it certainly wasn’t true this year in VA. While Democratic candidates receive a large percentage of the early vote, this disparity is not enough to guarantee a win.

What we know for sure is that partisans on both sides have embraced voting early, especially early voting in person, showing that simply expanding early voting access is not a Democratic panacea. By the time early voting ended on Saturday, 10/30, approximately 20% of Virginia’s registered voters had voted early, either by mail or in person. This represents a six-fold increase over the number of ballots cast early during Virginia’s last gubernatorial race in 2017. Virginia’s Democratic legislature expanded early voting access in 2020, which helps to explain the dramatic increase in early voting.

While Republicans largely opposed the expansion of early voting access, the Youngkin campaign embraced it, encouraging supporters to vote early in person or by mail and holding rallies near early voting locations.

Early voters in 2021 were 2 percentage points less Democratic than early voters in 2017. Rural voters, most of whom appear to have supported Republicans, increased their share of the total ballots cast in Virginia by 3% compared to 2020. Additionally, early voting increased substantially in many rural counties compared to 2017, while urban counties generally saw less growth compared to 2017.

This year’s elections continued to show that expanded voter access makes participating in democracy easier for all voters and does not overwhelmingly benefit Democrats. Turnout this year in VA was sky high — closer to 2018 midterm election turnout levels than any recent odd-year election in the state. Yet this did not spell Democratic victory. Instead, Republican voters turned out in massive numbers as well, delivering Republican wins up and down the ballot.

Moving forward, Democrats have to let go of any notion that early voting will overwhelmingly benefit the party. Democrats must also adjust ‘get out the vote’ or GOTV programs to start running earlier than ever, so that those programs reach voters in time to be helpful. At Sister District, our political department worked with a number of candidates to develop early vote and GOTV plans and strategies. We’ll continue to work directly with our endorsed candidates to ensure their field and media plans reflect best in class advice about how to maximize their early vote margins.

Outraising Doesn’t Guarantee Wins – But This Was Not a GOP Landslide

Overall, Democratic and Republican House candidates raised record-setting amounts in 2021, signaling that both parties saw the Virginia House of Delegates races as critical. The total amount spent by all candidates in the House as of November 1 (more than $67 million) is the second highest number in Virginia’s history, second only to the amount raised in 2019. The lion’s share of funds raised went to Democratic candidates, who outraised Republicans by around 143% as of October 29, 2021. Yet, Democrats are likely to have lost 7 seats and the House majority. Clearly, outraising your opponent does not guarantee success.

But what’s important to note is that Democrats did not lose in routs. The margins of loss, and often victory, were small. We tend to think of 2-4 points as the “field margin” — this is within the margin of error for polls and for other measures of campaign competitiveness. Tight races are won or lost on the margins. This year, six of the ten most expensive Delegate races in Virginia were determined within the “field margin.” Democrats significantly outraised Republicans in all six field margin races, but won only two. This indicates not that the funds weren’t important, but that they weren’t sufficient.

More was needed, in the form of field programming, message resonance, effective targeting particularly to young voters and others, and other tactics that may have made up the small margins we lost by. Again, strong fundraising must be seen as necessary but not sufficient to ensure success in tight races.

If there is one lesson that Democrats should have learned from down-ballot results in 2020, it’s that direct voter contact is critical. We can’t win if we aren’t meeting voters where they are and talking to them about the issues that matter to them. In 2020, most Democratic candidates made the public health decision not to campaign in person, which was detrimental to their ability to build name recognition and talk to voters. But this year, many Democratic candidates were back on the doors talking to voters at their homes. Yet in many cases, direct voter contact on our side started a bit later than usual and those programs were less independently robust than usual, due in large part to decisions made by the party about how to allocate data, financial, and human resources across campaigns at different levels of the ballot. On the other hand, we know that the Youngkin and GOP coordinated campaign began direct voter contact early, deploying canvassers to talk to voters across the state. That strategy helped them turn out their base in rural Virginia and persuade some suburban voters in blue-leaning northern Virginia.

Finding the Right Messages for the Right Voters

Republican messaging differed greatly from Democratic messaging this year, both up and down the ballot. Throughout the race, Youngkin embraced some Trump tactics and talking points, accepted a Trump endorsement, and invested in Rural Virginia voters. At the same time, he styled himself as a more moderate Republican, speaking directly to issues that animate many suburban voters, particularly schools. This strategy of ‘having it both ways’ worked.

At the state legislative level, the Republican State Leadership Committee used a very tight, disciplined set of messages in all their communications. They have kindly provided us with their entire 2021 Virginia playbook. Messaging was central to their strategy. After extensive early research, they chose three messages over the summer and stuck to them, across all targeted districts, for the entirety of the cycle.

On the other hand, Terry McAuliffe’s messaging was largely focused on tying Youngkin to Trump. But as beloved progressive messaging expert Anat Shenker-Osorio often says, we have to be FOR something desirable, not just against deplorable things. McAuliffe’s focus on Trump didn’t provide an inspiring vision for the state, despite the incredible gains that Virginia’s Democratic trifecta had made. The idea that the NY Times’ election eve analysis was that Youngkin provided an optimistic vision of the future shows the depths of Democrats’ failure to articulate a forward-looking vision. Downballot, Democratic messaging tended to focus on recent legislative accomplishments, but generally communications started after Republicans had gone on offense, sometimes leaving Democrats in a defensive posture.

It’s important to note that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to messaging, and so we are not arguing here that Democrats should have used the same messaging across districts. The point is, rather, that Democratic messaging must be resonant and effective. There are multiple ways to get there, but we have to get there. Democrats must both have a resonant vision of the future, and effective counter-narratives to GOP talking points (e.g., crime, education, CRT). These talking points were a preview of what Republicans will look to use and scale up nationally next year. Looking forward, Democrats need messaging strategies that show both what we are FOR and that respond convincingly to Republicans’ most effective talking points.

Support Year-Round Organizing

Campaigns for individual candidates are often transactional, which makes it difficult to persuade all potential voters in the course of a single campaign. As a party and a movement, we collectively need to support year-round organizing, the often unheralded and unsexy work of connecting the dots between issues people care about and building political power. This way, when a campaign comes by to ask someone to vote, the voter already feels connected to civic life and understands that they have a role in building political power, so that it can be wielded in ways that benefit their lives.

Supporting year-round organizing includes investing in youth organizing. Going into election day, the youth vote in Virginia lagged significantly behind where it had been even in 2017. Reports indicate that while more early votes were cast in this age group this year than in 2017, the vote share of this group shrank by more than half compared to 2017. And it appears that overall youth turnout decreased by 31% compared to 2020.

We also must invest in rural organizing. Going into election day, the rural early vote share in Virginia was ahead of 2017 and even ahead of where it was in 2020. Republicans were expected to, and did, dominate the vote count in these communities. Rural voters increased their share of the total votes recorded in Virginia from 16% in 2020 to 19% in 2021. Statistics also indicate that early voting turnout in many rural counties increased substantially compared to 2017, while more urban areas generally saw less extreme growth over the same time period.

We need to invest in rural organizing all year long, in every state. While many Democratic strategists focus on how to hold onto the suburban vote, it’s vital for us to be invested in rural areas too. We have to drive up turnout in urban and suburban areas and reduce Republican margins in rural areas. Turnout and performance in rural areas are important because rural people are important. The issues they face and care about are important. We cannot just permanently lift stakes for the suburbs and cities. But Democrats have increasingly abandoned rural areas, which means our strategy has essentially become hoping that rural voters turn out less. That is not a morally or strategically defensible position. We may not be able to win everywhere, at least not immediately. But investing in rural efforts can help reduce the margins by which Republican candidates win in rural areas, and build toward a longer-term vision of the future where all voters will benefit from progressive policies.

Sister District is super committed to supporting year-round organizing, which we see as a necessary complement to our electoral work. In 2021, we developed the new State Bridges program, which activates Sister District volunteers across the country to fundraise for organizations leading year-round power-building work. This year, the Sister District community raised over $160,000 for 10 organizations working year-round to build progressive power in 9 key states, including in Virginia. By supporting year-round organizing in these states, we can help lay the groundwork for electoral victories.

Demographics are not destiny

Terry McAuliffe went into this election with a number of demographic advantages on his side. The state is clearly trending blue – it had not elected a Republican governor in 12 years, had not voted for a Republican president since 2004, and Biden carried the state by 10 points just a year ago. Virginia has also gotten more diverse. The percentage of people of color in the state has increased 6% from 2010 to 41% and the majority of Virginians under 18 are people of color. Further, the population appears to be growing in blue areas and shrinking in areas dominated by the GOP, with Northern VA seeing the biggest gains. But last week’s results are proof positive that demographics are not destiny. Democrats cannot expect young people, people of color, and other people who often share our values to automatically come out to vote, or to vote for them. Democrats must do the hard work of making the case that voting for Democrats will result in a better outcome than voting for Republicans or not voting at all.

Beware Takes That Claim VA as Strong Bellwether for 2022

Be wary of hot takes that proclaim Virginia as a strong bellwether for next year’s midterm elections. While the elections may have portended strongly in a direction if the gubernatorial and state legislative elections had clearly broken one way or the other, they didn’t. Glenn Youngkin won by a margin of less than 2 percentage points, and Democrats lost the majority in the House by less than 800 collective votes. These results may be a signal of where next year may be headed, but it’s a relatively weak signal.

It’s worth noting that in three of the four prior midterms, VA’s gubernatorial elections have proven to be a somewhat reliable bellwether. But in those three of four cases, the Virginia gubernatorial win margins were greater than 5 points, indicating that whether Virginia provides a bellwether signal may depend on the new governor’s margin of victory.

Tim Kaine (D) was elected governor in 2005 by 5.7 points, and in 2006 Democrats took control of both the US House and Senate. In 2009, Bob McDonnell (R) won the governorship by 17.3 points and in 2010 the GOP took Ted Kennedy’s senate seat and the House. In 2013, McAuliffe (D) narrowly won the governorship by 2.6 points, which did not portend success for Dems in Congress in 2014 – that is the outlier. And in 2017, Ralph Northam (D) won the governorship by 9 points, which did presage Democrats retaking the House in 2018.

McAuliffe’s win in 2013 is instructive because he won by a narrow margin — in fact, by a just slightly larger margin than Youngkin won this year. McAuliffe’s win in 2013 simply was not a strong signal about what might come in the following year’s midterm elections. This year, Glenn Youngkin won by 1.93 points — within the margin of error for polls and within what campaign folks call the “field margin.” It was an even tighter race than McAuliffe’s 2013 race, so there’s a good argument that Youngkin’s win does not provide a very strong signal for next year. Youngkin’s win — and Republicans narrowly retaking the House — does not provide definitive confirmation that the political environment has “broken wide open against Democrats.” Make no mistake — next year, the historical winds are at Republicans’ backs: the presidential party tends to lose seats in midterm elections. But the results in Virginia should not be understood as a clear drubbing for Democrats. The gubernatorial and state legislative majorities were decided by thin margins. Democrats should go into next year with eyes open and battle-ready. They should not go into next year with their tails between their legs.

Get Stoked about Incumbent Protection

This year, 9 of our 12 endorsed candidates in Virginia were fragile incumbents. That is because we forecasted in our 2021-2022 strategy that this year would be challenging, and that the bulk of our resources would best be spent protecting our Democratic majority in the House. We were right. This year, the majority in Virginia was on the line, and our incumbent protection efforts were critical in holding several fragile seats in the house.

Next year, our strategy will remain steadfast – we will, as we always have, endorse and work to protect some fragile state legislative incumbents in key chambers across the country. Certainly we will look for chamber and district flip opportunities wherever possible. But we know that next year is going to be challenging for Democrats, and that we can expect many state legislative Democratic incumbents to face difficult reelection challenges under new maps, particularly where Republicans have gerrymandered the redistricted maps and process. Some of our efforts will be best deployed protecting our hard-won gains. And this is great! Candidates don’t need to be challengers to be exciting. Incumbents will have the benefit of running on the records they’ve set over their years serving their communities. These incredible incumbents have drafted or helped enact progressive legislation and engaged in constituent casework that has changed lives. They will need our support more than ever in 2022, and we should be excited about doing our part to help them continue to serve.