Glenn Youngkin, a career private equity executive running his first campaign, defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in Tuesday’s Virginia governor’s election, notching the first statewide victory for a Republican there since 2009 and dealing a major blow to the national Democratic Party. Vote tallies in the races for lieutenant governor and state attorney general suggest a GOP sweep for all three offices.
Youngkin branded himself early in the race as a moderate outsider, and targeted swing voters with ads focused on tax cuts, charter schools and raises for teachers and police officers.
But he and Virginia Republicans leaned in to the conservative culture war in the closing stages of the contest, staking the campaign on false claims that Democrats had helped spread the teaching of “critical race theory” throughout Virginia public schools, mischaracterizing the alleged sexual assault of a Virginia school student to stoke anti-trans hysteria, and peddling some of Donald Trump’s favorite lies about voter fraud and “election integrity.”
In the end, the effort to embrace the issues that would drive up turnout among conservatives while still pitching himself as something else to voters in the middle worked.
Democrats will lose their stranglehold on a state in which they have won four consecutive presidential contests and two straight gubernatorial races, and used their power to enact laws expanding health care, abortion access, protections for LGBTQ people and voting rights.
Virginia has perhaps been the brightest spot on the political map for Democrats over the last half-decade. A battleground that has steadily trended blue, it has produced the sort of shift ― and major legislative accomplishments ― that Democrats hope Georgia, Arizona and other states with similar demographics and political trends can follow.
Now, just 12 months after President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, Virginia will have a Republican governor ― one Democrats spent months branding a “Trump loyalist” at that.
Virginia Democrats also appear to have lost seats — and potentially majority control — of the state House of Delegates. And in New Jersey, a governor’s race that many Democrats considered a safe bet was still too close to call on Wednesday morning, with Republican Jack Ciattarelli holding a razor-thin lead over incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy (D). Murphy may still eke out a win there, but the closer-than-expected results point to broad problems for Democrats at a time when Biden’s popularity has sank below 50% and the party’s slim congressional majorities are struggling to reach deals among themselves to pass the president’s major legislative priorities into law.
McAuliffe conceded the race on Wednesday morning, congratulating Youngkin in a statement.
“While last night we came up short, I am proud that we spent this campaign fighting for the values we so deeply believe in,” McAuliffe said. “We must protect Virginia’s great public schools and invest in our students. We must protect affordable health care coverage, raise the minimum wage faster, and expand paid leave so working families have a fighting shot. We must protect voting rights, protect a woman’s right to choose, and, above all else, we must protect our democracy. While there will be setbacks along the way, I am confident that the long term path of Virginia is toward inclusion, openness and tolerance for all.”
Nationally, the loss will generate fears of big losses in 2022’s midterm contests that could cost the party its slim majorities in Congress and the Senate, and key gubernatorial and other down-ballot races, although Virginia’s predictive power of the national political mood is not as certain or reliable as often portrayed. It could have implications for Biden’s agenda in Congress, depending on how Democrats react as they continue to negotiate among themselves on spending and budget packages and major legislation to protect voting rights.
The defeat will force the party to face the apparent reality that a moderate sheen can help Trump-friendly campaigns prevail even in places where Trump failed. And it will require that they figure out how to motivate and maintain the support of voters who turned against the former president but do not see the Republican Party as a whole as an intolerable piece of his machine.
More immediately, Youngkin’s win will put a halt to Virginia Democrats’ efforts to build on the accomplishments they racked up under Gov. Ralph Northam (D). With majorities in both state legislative chambers, Democrats expanded Medicaid, bolstered abortion rights, passed one of the nation’s most expansive voting rights laws, abolished the death penalty, increased the minimum wage and implemented new LGBTQ protections.
Rolling back those gains will be difficult, given that Democrats still hold a slim majority in the state senate. Control of the House of Delegates was still unclear as of Tuesday night. But Democrats are unlikely to advance key priorities like paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage with a Republican in the governor’s mansion.
“Most of this election cycle focused on what the Republicans are for or against. You’d think with all the things Democrats have gotten done that would be the centerpiece of the campaign.”
– Ben Tribbett, Virginia Democratic consultant
Democrats cast the governor’s race, which polling averages showed was virtually tied heading into Election Day, as a “battle for the soul” of Virginia — echoing a familiar line from Biden during his campaign last year — and even for the health and maintenance of American democracy. And they poured resources and effort into turning out Virginians during early voting periods, which were expanded this year as part of a larger effort in the Democratic state legislature to broaden and protect voting rights.
In McAuliffe, Democrats nominated a former governor who touted his ability to get things done while in office and promised to build on the advances Democrats made under Northam. But their prior accomplishments and McAuliffe’s own platform ― including paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage, and investments into public education and teacher salaries ― often took a backseat to Democratic efforts to tie Youngkin to Trump.
“One of the mistakes of this campaign has been not running on that record,” said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia Democratic consultant. “Most of this election cycle focused on what the Republicans are for or against. You’d think, with all the things Democrats have gotten done, that would be the centerpiece of the campaign.”
The belief was that a Trump-focused strategy would help motivate both longtime Democratic voters and the suburbanites who’d run away from the GOP during Trump’s presidency. They drew hope even as polls tightened when early voting tallies drastically exceeded rates from 2017, and especially when late surges pushed turnout among Black voters higher than it was four years ago, at least according to pre-election models of early voting patterns.
They also saw high turnout during the final days of early voting in northern Virginia as a positive sign that McAuliffe, who previously served as Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018, would win a rare second term in office.
But ultimately, the strategy misfired.
“Donald Trump was a very useful foil for Virginia Democrats over the last several years, but he’s not nearly as powerful of boogeyman as a former president,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.
Democrats struggled to articulate how Youngkin’s similarities to Trump would impact voters’ everyday lives. The COVID-19 pandemic, a huge issue during the summer, receded from the front of voters’ minds as the delta surge subsided, reducing the power of Youngkin’s opposition to vaccine mandates. The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s voter fraud conspiracies were barely salient for anyone who wasn’t already motivated to vote, and concerns about basic American democracy may have proved too abstract for independent voters.
Instead, the focus shifted to concerns about the economy, inflation fears and Biden, whose approval rating dropped below 50% in the race’s final stages. National news, meanwhile, focused on Democratic struggles to advance major infrastructure and spending legislation through Congress, a point Virginia Democrats may have been able to counter by touting their own legislative accomplishments had they begun to do so earlier in the race.
Youngkin built a two-pronged campaign that allowed him to thread the needle in Virginia in a way that other Republicans ― both more obviously radical conservatives and those with similarly moderate credentials ― have not been able to.
Youngkin essentially ran two separate campaigns: To suburban Virginia voters he hoped to win back after they abandoned the party in droves during Trump’s presidency, he initially cast himself as a moderate Republican focused on Bush-era GOP priorities.
For conservative voters he hoped to reach via right-wing news outlets and campaign surrogates, he embraced the mantle of “election integrity,” the euphemism Republicans have adopted to nod to Trump’s lies about election fraud and restrict voting rights nationwide, suggested he’d take more aggressive steps to roll back abortion access than he acknowledged publicly, and played up fears about the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools. He also sought to feed lingering anger over COVID-19 restrictions and in-person schooling closures.
It looks like that strategy worked. Youngkin racked up massive margins among voters in the state’s heavily white rural areas ― places the Democratic Party has lost major ground in recent years and ceded even more Tuesday.
“Democrats are going to have to really think through what their national strategy is for winning back some of these voters in small towns and rural areas,” Tribbett said. “Cities are what give the Democrats margin, but if you take out the rural and ex-urban Democratic vote, it flips almost every marginal state in the country almost immediately.
“Virginia Democrats,” he added, “are going to be the first ones to have to reckon with ‘How do we go back and win some of these voters?’”
Even in the late stages of the race, when Youngkin leaned hard into “critical race theory,” he fashioned the argument differently for moderate audiences. In TV ads, he made the issue about parents’ ability to have a say in what their children learned at school. Youngkin ran one closing ad that featured a parent who’d wanted Virginia to ban schools from assigning the classic Toni Morrison novel “Beloved.” Another accused the supposed “left liberal bureaucrats” McAuliffe put into schools while he “pushed parents out” of covering up sexual assaults (a story Republicans mischaracterized to feed anti-trans panic) and of fomenting chaos in schools, a point Youngkin made via a video of Black students fighting.
“There was a huge split between what he was saying in rallies or when he goes on Fox, versus what he put his advertising money behind,” said Jared Leopold, a Virginia-based Democratic consultant. “If you’re a regular voter who watches local news not cable news, you’re not seeing Glenn Youngkin talk about critical race theory or voter integrity. You’re seeing ads that talk about investing more money in schools, or giving you parental choice in schools.”
Like his focus on “election integrity,” Youngkin’s education argument was typical white identity politics filtered through well-worn code words: “Parental control” may have been meant to entice moderate voters, but the conservative base knew exactly what he really meant.
“There isn’t critical race theory being taught in the K-12 curriculum in Virginia,” Farnsworth said. “But CRT is kind of a stand-in for talking about race without saying race, which is kind of the Virginia way.”
He danced a similar two-step on vaccine mandates, casting them as a violation of personal choice in major health decisions. Many voters made up their minds early in the contest, according to a late Roanoke College poll. But by the end of the race, surveys showed Youngkin leading both among independent voters and among parents of schoolchildren.
It might have been “an okey-doke,” as former President Barack Obama described it at a Richmond campaign rally just two weeks before Election Day. It didn’t matter that Youngkin had cast himself as a moderate, or that he might not actually believe the radical ideas his supporters were pushing. That he was willing to entertain conspiracies and weaponize manufactured controversies in order to win an election was worse than simply believing them, Obama argued.
But enough voters didn’t see it that way, and the outcome will leave Democrats scrambling to figure out how it all went wrong in a state where so little has gone against them in the last decade.
Youngkin succeeded in part because the GOP’s more radical fringes coalesced around and even embraced him as one of their own, despite his obvious stylistic differences from the sort of leaders that excite the right.
Trump endorsed Youngkin but did not travel to Virginia to campaign. He also allowed Youngkin to acknowledge Biden’s victory, which he finally did in May, and concede that there “wasn’t material fraud” in 2020 without turning on him. State Sen. Amanda Chase, who was formally censured for spreading election conspiracies and attending the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, eschewed a write-in campaign after losing the GOP nomination and campaigned hard for Youngkin.
That allowed Youngkin to lean on his right-wing surrogates and supporters to spread the sort of election conspiracies that appeal to conservative voters, while he maintained just enough distance from them. Chase, for instance, spent the final two weeks of the campaign baselessly insisting that Democrats were trying to steal the election, and appeared at a campaign event where attendees ― including lieutenant governor candidate Winsome Sears ― pledged allegiance to a flag carried at the Capitol riot. Youngkin condemned the latter episode while pleading ignorance about the supposed election-rigging scheme Chase said she knew was in place.
Even before the election, Virginia Democrats played down the race’s national implications, and many were skeptical of a burgeoning narrative that the focus on “critical race theory” had swung independent voters. Tribbett, the Democratic consultant, argued the opposite: Youngkin’s closing focus on the issue, he said, likely ”alienated voters and kept Terry alive in a race that was moving quickly the other way.”
Even if Republicans don’t mimic Youngkin’s entire strategy in 2022, a cycle in which the GOP’s most high-profile candidates are already leaning even further into Trumpism than Youngkin did, they will likely replicate his efforts on education, especially as conservative groups continue to foment school board protests across the country.
That will require Democrats to come up with a stronger counter ahead of the midterms. Late in the race, McAuliffe hit Youngkin and the GOP for seeking to divert funding away from public schools and toward private education, in an attempt to link him to former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ plans to privatize public schools. It’s the sort of attack that has turned education into a winning issue for Democrats before, and it could potentially blunt the GOP’s fear-mongering over “critical race theory” in the future, one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity to speak freely about the race argued. But McAuliffe’s response on education came too little, too late.
Ruminations on where Democrats should go from here will be plentiful and heated, especially within a party already debating its future direction and how to succeed in spite of the structural disadvantages it faces in Congress, the Senate and state legislatures.
Until Tuesday, at least, Virginia was a rare source of constant Democratic optimism. Now it’s part of the party’s uncertain and potentially gloomy future too.
And that’s especially true for Black Virginians, along with women and LGBTQ residents of the state. Joe Dillard, a community activist in Norfolk who formerly served as president of the local NAACP chapter, told HuffPost before the election it’s “fair to say” that Black Virginians “are pessimistic” about Youngkin and that “there’s even a little bit of fear there.”