The Leftward Local Turn That Wasn’t
Across the country, voters in down-ballot races rewarded moderation over progressivism.
Results in the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races have received justified attention, but to understand fully the significance of last week’s elections, look down-ballot. While it’s always a bad time to be the incumbent party in midterm elections, this year saw a centrist, pragmatic assemblage of voters push back on progressive overreach in many major cities. Parents became potent school board voters, while working-class and nonwhite voters emerged as voices of moderation within metros.
In Southlake, Texas, an affluent suburb west of Dallas, opponents of critical race theory in classrooms won a landslide victory in local school board elections. Andrew Yeager, who led the charge by local parents against woke curricula and teacher training, got elected by a 30-point margin, while helping to flip control of the school board. In Colorado’s Douglas County, near Denver, the conservative “Vote 4 Kids First” slate appears to have won all four seats it contested, with similar wins in Missouri’s Johnson County, near Kansas City. Nationwide, more than 215 school board members faced recall elections this year—more than four times the yearly average.
Several big-city mayoral elections seemed to strike a blow for moderation. Eric Adams won two-thirds of the New York City vote as a pro-public safety, pro-growth candidate. Farther north in Buffalo, 39-year-old socialist India Walton lost her bid for mayor against incumbent mayor Byron Brown’s write-in candidacy. In Seattle, business-backed Bruce Harrell won a decisive, 30-point victory in the race for mayor against activist- and union-backed Lorena González. Harrell’s call for a return to public order and quality of life was a winning strategy in a city where homelessness registers as a concern for 90 percent of Seattle metro residents, according to the Manhattan Institute’s Metropolitan Majority survey.
Progressives were also mostly disappointed in Minneapolis, scene of last year’s George Floyd riots. Mayor Jacob Frey cruised to reelection against a crowded field of far-left candidates, and he credits his opposition to defunding the police as being key to his victory. Frey begins his second term in office as the city’s most powerful mayor in memory after a ballot initiative passed giving him chief executive authority over the city’s departments. Amid rising gun violence, voters also handily rejected a proposal to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new public safety agency.
It wasn’t all moderation. Activists prevailed in passing rent-control initiatives in Minneapolis and neighboring Saint Paul, the latter of which will now have among the most stringent rent caps in the country. A citizen-backed bid to restaff the police in Austin failed amid high-dollar donations from progressive groups around the country, including $500,000 from George Soros’s Open Policy Center.
And some cities elected left-wing mayors. Boston, 36-year-old city councilor and former Harvard law student Michelle Wu was elected with a base of younger, educated white voters. But while she’s called for rent control and free public transit, among other measures, Wu stressed managerial competency as much as progressive reform, and she’s long cultivated allies in Boston’s conservative and business communities. Support from degree-wielding white voters was also crucial in the mayoral win of 34-year-old progressive Justin Bibb as the mayor of Cleveland; his campaign stressed police accountability and government efficiency.
Yet broadly across the country, working class and nonwhite voters appear to have offered crucial support to moderate, even conservative, candidates. In New Jersey, Latino-heavy precincts swung to the right in the state’s gubernatorial contest; in Texas, Republican John Lujan won a predominantly Hispanic congressional district in San Antonio that went for Joe Biden in 2020. Public safety and housing affordability were key themes for many black voters in Atlanta’s mayoral contest, where top vote-getter Felicia Moore promised to hire 250 more cops and offer better services for resident’s tax dollars.
One lesson emerging from the 2021 elections is that pragmatic, centrist voters are making a difference down-ballot, and that a progressive shift at the local level is hardly a foregone conclusion. Educational concerns and economic woes—combined with spikes in violent crime and a sense that high taxes aren’t leading to better government—are clearly resonating among voters, particularly those lacking prosperity and protection. Most of all, this year’s elections serve as a reminder that parents are fierce advocates for their children. Candidates would do well to listen.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images
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