The full picture of what exactly happened on election night 2021 won’t be available for some time. Final results need to be settled, exit polls adjusted to match those results, precinct-by-precinct numbers pored over. The reasons for Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia will be debated, as will the reasons why Democrats were able to force a split in the state House of Delegates even as the GOP swept statewide races in the Old Dominion.
But there are some clear takeaways: President Joe Biden’s low approval rating hurt McAuliffe, and so did his own flat campaign. The sky-high turnout numbers of the Donald Trump era are here to stay. And the Republican Party’s focus on critical race theory works ― at least a little.
The winner of the governor’s race was somewhat beside the point.
Who wins the Virginia governor’s race obviously matters tremendously for the governance of Virginia, but the race was close enough that the 2-percentage-point shift necessary to make McAuliffe the winner wouldn’t necessarily change the political takeaways. And the major takeaway is obvious: Democrats are going to face a tough political environment in 2022, like almost every party in U.S. history has when they control the White House.
In recent history, the partisan swing of the Virginia governor’s race has been closely correlated with the partisan swing of the next year’s popular vote in U.S. House elections, according to an analysis from The Economist’s G. Eliot Morris. The fact that the race was close at all after incumbent Gov. Ralph Northam won by 9 percentage points four years ago indicates Democrats are likely on pace to lose control of the House of Representatives.
Democrats spent much of the spring crafting dreamy scenarios where they would buck historical trends ― voters would reward Biden for getting the coronavirus vaccine, parents would love the hundreds of dollars they received every month with the child tax credit ― but the surge of the delta variant of the coronavirus and Biden’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan moved public opinion enough to put those fantasies to bed. The Democrat’s approval rating is now in the tank.
The Virginia election is not the only benchmark we have: California Gov. Gavin Newsom essentially replicated his victory margins from the 2018 Democratic wave in his recall election in September, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy appeared on track early Wednesday to be the first Democrat to win reelection in New Jersey in nearly 50 years.
Those results were clearly better for Democrats, but they don’t work nearly as well as stand-ins for the type of tightly contested, very expensive race we will see across the nation next November.
And here’s the obligatory “to be sure” paragraph: Nothing is set in stone. If supply chain issues fade, or inflation dips or COVID-19 case numbers fall and stay low, Democrats could reap some political rewards next year. But the party should not count on it.
McAuliffe’s loss is McAuliffe’s and does not belong to one wing of the party
It only took minutes for Democrats on both sides of the party’s ideological split to begin using McAuliffe’s loss to argue that those arrogant progressives or dastardly moderates were to blame for McAuliffe’s loss ― that either the failure in Congress to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill or unite around Biden’s broader agenda sapped Democratic energy enough for Youngkin to triumph.
McAuliffe has encouraged these arguments, asking before the election for Congress to pass the infrastructure deal as soon as possible. But definitively blaming one side or the other for the delay in advancing Biden’s agenda is a tricky knot to untangle. And even if you can, a well-run gubernatorial campaign should not need to beg for action on federal legislation to win.
McAuliffe’s positive agenda was relatively thin. He focused on tying Youngkin to Trump ― more on that later ― and on a plan to guarantee paid leave. He did not regularly tout the slew of progressive accomplishments ― marijuana legalization, Medicaid expansion ― that Democrats made over the prior four years under Northam.
Would the successful passage of at least some of Biden’s agenda have helped McAuliffe? Almost certainly, because it would have at least marginally improved Biden’s popularity and handed Democrats some nice news cycles.
And not all of the blame for McAuliffe’s loss can be placed on the national political environment. In exit polls ― which should be taken with a grain of salt ― a 49% plurality of voters said their feelings on Biden played no role in their vote. McAuliffe also handed Republicans a clear gift by saying parents should have “no control” over school curriculums, throwing a Molotov cocktail on an already hot issue.
Trump went away, but Trump-era turnout did not
One of the defining political facts of the Trump era was sky-high turnout. The 2020 presidential election had the highest turnout of any presidential election in four decades, with roughly two-thirds of eligible voters casting a ballot. The 2018 midterms similarly set records.
After a record 2.6 million people voted in the 2017 governor’s race in Virginia, turnout for the 2021 contest is set to top 3.1 million. Though there had been some thought that voter enthusiasm and interest would decline without Trump actively polarizing the country on a day-to-day basis, the races in California and Virginia seem to indicate the public is more than willing to get excited ― but low turnout for lower-profile races indicates media attention may play a major factor.
Trump was not wholly absent from the race ― he repeatedly endorsed Youngkin in statements and held tele-rallies for him, crucially avoiding either appearing on camera or visiting the state. But McAuliffe tried relentlessly to tie Youngkin to the former president, to the exclusion of almost any other message.
In the hours after McAuliffe’s loss, there was one sentiment uniting progressives like former Rep. Tom Perriello of Virginia and moderates like Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota: the candidate had talked too much about Trump.
The successes and limits of the school board wars
The signature Republican issue of the Virginia elections was anger at local school boards, both over pandemic-era school closures and over the supposed teaching of critical race theory. GOP strategists said it would help them win over the type of educated, suburban voters who fled the party during the Trump years.
The issue was a top one for Youngkin ― he made it a topic of television advertising, often paired with a promise to raise teacher pay ― and was relentlessly hyped in right-wing media. Youngkin’s success means other Republicans are almost certain to adopt it as a major talking point in races next year.
But it might not be as effective as they hope. The swing toward Republicans in the state was fairly uniform, regardless of an area’s density or demographics. Loudoun County, which became the center of fights over education issues, moved toward Youngkin at the same rate as the rest of the state. The exit polls indicate Youngkin’s biggest gains compared with 2017 and 2020 were with non-college-educated white voters, not with the college-educated. And at least some GOP candidates for delegate who focused on the issue lost in key swing districts.
Republicans might not care ― or even prefer ― that the issue works better with non-college-educated voters: There are plenty of them in many suburban districts, and non-college-educated whites are massively overrepresented in the U.S. Senate.