A loss in Virginia and a close race in New Jersey sent divided Democrats in Washington searching for answers on Wednesday, and calling for new strategies to unlock a stalled legislative agenda before they sustain deeper political damage.
Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race, erasing President Joe Biden’s 10 percentage point margin of victory just a year ago.
In New Jersey, the heavily favoured Democratic governor, Phil Murphy, won re-election against Republican political newcomer Jack Ciattarelli after about 24 hours of being neck and neck despite running in a state Mr Biden had carried by 16 percentage points.
The results were ominous for Democrats far beyond those states. The party's eroding support does not bode well as it clings to thin House and Senate majorities before midterm elections next year.
Elections without presidential races historically mean many lost seats, especially in the House, for the party holding the White House.
Congressional leaders on Wednesday tried to bolster the appeal of Mr Biden's stalled domestic legislation and used the election results to call for action.
The two measures – a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a 10-year, $1.75tn package of social and environment initiatives financed largely with taxes on the wealthy and corporations – have been slowed for months by infighting between progressive and moderate Democrats.
Mr Biden on Wednesday said Virginian voters were frustrated that the Democrats had been unable to deliver on the key legislation.
"People want us to get things done," he said. "And that's why I am continuing to push very hard for the Democratic Party to move along and pass my infrastructure bill and my Build Back Better bill."
Three quarters of voters said drawn-out negotiations in Washington over Mr Biden’s agenda were an important factor in their vote.
They were more likely to back Mr Youngkin, according to preliminary results from AP VoteCast, a survey of Virginia voters.
“I would hope this clarifies everybody’s thinking about how important it is to get these bills behind us,” said Democratic Congressman Gerald Connolly, who represents some of Washington’s prosperous suburbs.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia lamented that some fellow Democrats “wanted to be purist about whatever their own particular goals were, left, right and centre".
“A lot of politics is about timing. And there was a time to do this that would have helped in both of these states,” Mr Kaine said.
But rather than swift passage of the compromises on the table, progressives used the moment to urge the party to restore the liberal priorities dropped during talks.
They blamed the election losses on Democrats’ failure to make the bills bold enough.
Mr Biden and congressional leaders have cut in half what was a $3.5tn package of social and environment initiatives, curtailing or eliminating provisions embraced by progressives but opposed by moderates.
Republicans, meanwhile, were jubilant.
Mr Youngkin's victory in Virginia, in which he secured Donald Trump's endorsement but kept him at arm's length, has given other Republicans a blueprint to follow as they seek to regain control of Congress next year, analysts said.
"Youngkin created the playbook," said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication at the American University in Washington. "He threaded the Donald Trump needle."
Mr McAuliffe, a Clinton Democrat who served as Virginia's governor from 2014 to 2018, tried during the campaign to portray Mr Youngkin as a Trump acolyte.
"The McAuliffe campaign was just non-stop trying to tie Mr Youngkin to Trump," said J Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics.
"I don't think it was that effective. Youngkin just doesn't talk or act like Trump.
"He's more of a Mitt Romney or a Paul Ryan-type Republican," he said, referring respectively to the senator from Utah and the former Republican speaker of the House.
Mr Youngkin, while giving a "wink and a nod" to Mr Trump, managed to keep his distance from the former president, whose brash style alienated many suburban voters, particularly white women.
Agencies contributed to this report