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Democrats will have to deal with the fallout from Tuesday's elections

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A page at npr.org lets you try your own analysis of this week's elections. With a few clicks, you can sort the votes in Virginia by counties. You can compare the vote margins to the 2020 election. And if you do that, you will find that as Republican Glenn Youngkin won the governor's race in Virginia, his party improved in every single county - no exceptions, all 95 counties. Compared with 2020, Republicans won the Republican counties by more. They lost the Democratic counties by less. And they flipped some counties. Some cities are measured separately. And the trend was the same.

Let's bring in Democratic political strategist Dan Sena, who advised several candidates in the Virginia election, including the defeated candidate for lieutenant governor. He's also a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which handles the Democratic side in congressional elections. Welcome to the program.

DAN SENA: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What do you make of an election where your party lost ground everywhere?

SENA: Well, that's a great question. I think Democrats need to just take a minute and look at our record and look at what's happened in Washington and take a few minutes and reassess what we have put in front of voters, what matters to voters and really ask ourselves the tough question of, did we present everything we've done to help families get through COVID? Have we presented everything we have done to help small businesses move forward? And do we really have a plan for parents who are feeling fairly anxious about what's happening in their schools? And I think if Democrats take the time to adjust their agenda, get some work done in Washington and then really lean into their accomplishments, I think going into 2022, we will have a better playbook than unfortunately we had in Virginia this past November.

INSKEEP: You know, President Biden is saying something a little similar to what I think you're saying. Let's hear some of that. He suggested that voters want to see practical results. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: People want us to get things done. They want us to get things done. And that's why I'm continuing to push very hard for the Democratic Party to move along and pass my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better bill.

INSKEEP: I can see why the president would want to say that because he wants the bills to pass. But are you suggesting that if those bills - which Congress has been arguing about for months - if they had passed before Election Day, the Democrats might have won Virginia?

SENA: Well, I think the messaging around what the president and Congress is working on has unfortunately gotten lost in the process and the back and forth of sort of the arguing in Washington rather than - rather in the delivering of Washington. And I think when you look at what's in the Build Back Together plan, you know, you've got things like paid family leave that are likely to get put back in. You've got, you know, major changes to climate. You've got some things in there that, one, the country really need but that families across the country overwhelmingly support. The Democrats just need to take a minute and get things done, get things passed and then take the time to really lean into the accomplishments and make sure that the electorate and voters and families across the United States know what they just did to help them get through what has been a pretty crazy couple of years here in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Mr. Sena, you also mentioned education at the top about Democrats...

SENA: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Needing to say something reassuring to parents who are anxious about education. Republican Glenn Youngkin, of course, capitalized on culture war narratives. He talked a lot, as Republicans in a very disciplined way have, about critical race theory. We should pause for a moment to say that this is in many ways made up. Nobody is walking into an elementary school classroom and literally teaching critical race theory. But there is a real debate about how to talk about race in America. Republicans found a way in that seemed to connect with people. What kept Democrats from responding effectively?

SENA: Well, I think there's two things. I think unfortunately, Terry McAuliffe's quote from the debate where he - and I'm paraphrasing here - but he basically said he doesn't think parents should be telling teachers what to teach. I think that quote was able to in many ways provide a general statement that really frustrated parents across Virginia. And I say that as a parent who's sitting in western Loudoun County right now. We live in a swing county. We actually live in a county that Terry McAuliffe ended up winning by 10 points, rather than 20 for Biden.

But I think the truth is that we're meeting parents where they are. You have to understand the Democrats really need to have a clear idea that for the vast majority of Americans and Virginians, their dining room table has actually been the third-grade classroom or the fourth-grade classroom for really the last 18 months. And there's a fair amount of anxiety and concern over that. And so I think that combined with what was - and what is an absolute playbook that is designed by the Trump administration on cultural wars across the United States - I think the Democrats just have to really sharpen their tools and prepare for what I believe will be rough going on the cultural wars in 2022. And in many ways, the Democrats have sort of brought a knife to a gunfight on this messagewise. And we certainly need to sharpen those tools.

INSKEEP: I want to follow up in the moment that we have on one aspect of this. It would be easy for someone listening to us to assume that Republicans fired up the white base vote against people of color. But that doesn't seem to be really what happened here because when I look at this county-by-county analysis at NPR, it appears that Democrats also did worse in majority minority areas. It seems that Republicans did better with all kinds of voters, at least at the initial analysis.

SENA: Well, I think it's important to remember that the suburbs in particular across the United States are a very diverse and mixed group of people. And, look, I think the idea that parents may not be included in education, that there may be a different positioning for parents than there are for teachers in the involvement of their children's education - I think, it's just something the Democrats really need to pay attention to in 2022 and likely come up with a more inclusive policy that certainly gives parents a seat at the table, given how frustrated parents really are about - you know, their dining room tables have been where they're teaching geometry for the last 18 months for many parents.

INSKEEP: Dan Sena, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much for taking the time.

SENA: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.