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Republican wins overshadow new slate of Democrat mayors

A year ago, voters took polling stations and mail-in ballots by force; the 2020 presidential election amassed the highest voter turnout since 1900. If 2021 election results are any indication of public opinion, voters are unimpressed with the Biden Administration. State and municipal governments across the country shifted right, leaving Democrats scrambling to reimagine campaign efforts.

After swinging blue for Biden in 2020, Pennsylvania restored equilibrium on Nov. 2 by electing Republican candidates down the ballot, including state Supreme Court Justice-elect Kevin Brobson and Superior Court Judge-elect Megan Sullivan. As with the majority of large cities, Pittsburgh maintained its Democratic leadership; it has not had a Republican mayor since 1936. Ed Gainey continued this precedent, defeating Tony Moreno, who ran as the Republican challenger following his loss in the Democratic primary. As a Pittsburgh native, Gainey grew up in South Oakland and East Liberty, and he has experienced the city’s complacency towards gentrification. His platform emphasized the importance of creating safe neighborhoods. Gainey secured his mayoral candidacy during the May primary, winning 46 percent of the vote — around 7 percent higher than incumbent Bill Peduto. Gainey went on to win the general election, making history as Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor.

The gubernatorial race in Virginia was among the most anticipated of Tuesday’s elections, drawing in the highest voter turnout rate in the state since 1997. The contest was split between Democrat Terry McAuliffe (who held the position from 2014 to 2018) and Republican Glenn Youngkin (an affluent businessman and political neophyte). A day before the election, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens was willing to bet “a California cabernet that Youngkin wins.” A toast to Stephens: Youngkin received 50.7 percent of votes. Election analysis by the New York Times showed that, compared to results from the 2020 presidential election, every county in the state demonstrated higher Republican voting margins. Among Youngkin’s most mobilizing pillars was parental choice and authority in education. “As governor,” his campaign website states, “Glenn will empower parents and restore excellence and commonsense in education.”

The political subtext of this statement is rooted in a fierce conservative aversion to critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the role of racism in creating and perpetuating de jure and de facto discrimination. In a televised roundtable discussion this October, McAuliffe described critical race theory as a “dog whistle,” after saying, “​​I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The framework is only taught on college campuses, but Republican pundits and politicians have recently seized on the opportunity to stoke parental fears that it will be incorporated into elementary and high school classrooms. It was a winning strategy.

Sweeping Republican victories in Virginia included historic breakthroughs in representation. In a 50.7 to 49.3 split, voters elected Winsome Sears as lieutenant governor. She will be the first woman and first woman of color to assume this role but has historically shifted away from discussions surrounding race. Her platform underscores tax cuts, promotes “our law enforcement heroes,” encourages pay raises for teachers, and proposes to politically and economically empower Black Virginians. Before her election campaign, Winsome Sears served as the National Chair for Black Americans Making America First. In the race for attorney general, Jason Miyares defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Herring by two percentage points. Miyares will be the first Latino person to assume this office. His campaign emphasized constituents’ security by supporting police and “restor[ing] law and order.”

New Jersey’s gubernatorial race did little to quell left-leaning unease surrounding the Nov. 2 elections. Though Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy maintained his position with 50.9 percent of the vote, this was far less than his 2017 win of 56 percent. Yet the state’s biggest attention-grabber spotlighted the race for State Senate President. It is one of the most powerful positions in the state — and a Republican truck driver just beat its two-term Democratic incumbent.

Regardless of general election results, Boston was on track to elect its first woman and first person of color as mayor. Michelle Wu secured the position over her opponent and former colleague Annisa Essaibi George 64 to 36. Both women were Democratic city councilors prior to their campaigns. Wu took notably progressive stances, especially on climate justice — she has proposed her own Green New Deal for Boston — and affordable housing.

Voters in Buffalo were less enthused about their opportunity for progressive leadership. In June, healthcare worker and community organizer India Walton won the Democratic mayoral primary against incumbent Byron Brown. Undeterred, Brown led a write-in campaign in the general election, promoting centrism over Walton’s Democratic Socialist pedagogy. To advance his reelection attempts, Brown’s campaign distributed $100,000 worth of rubber stamps. He claimed victory on Tuesday.

New York City will be led by the more moderate Eric Leroy Adams, the city’s second Black mayor in history. Adams, who formerly served as a police captain, is preceded by Bill de Blasio, who reached his term limit this year.

In addition to elected leadership, voters across the country decided on changes to state legislation. New York ballots included two measures to expand voting accessibility. The first would have removed the requirement of 10-day-advance registration (to potentially be replaced with same-day voting); the second would have let the State Legislature implement no-excuse absentee voting. Neither proposition passed. Voters also had the opportunity to advance a redistricting amendment that would require that all residents — regardless of citizenship — be counted (“should the federal census fail to do so”) and that “incarcerated persons be counted at the place of their last residence for redistricting.” This initiative also failed.

Ballots in Austin included a proposal to bolster the city’s police department following a successful 2020 defunding campaign that slashed its budget by one-third. “Voters threw [the ballot measure] in the trash,” freelance journalist Christopher Hooks wrote in the "TexasMonthly"; the proposition failed 31 to 69. This was a small victory for progressive denizens amidst recent abortion restrictions and proposed gerrymandered districts in Texas. Minneapolis also posed a ballot question related to policing: Should the city’s police force be replaced with a public safety department focused on de-escalation measures and mental health support? 56 percent of voters said no.

Across candidate elections and ballot initiatives, a wave of red swept through the country’s political currents. Domenico Montanaro, a senior political editor for NPR, described the Nov. 2 elections as a “bad omen for Democrats.” Will they pick up the slack for 2022?