Republicans were gleeful about Glenn Youngkin’s win in the Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday night, feeling a sense of relief from a GOP statewide sweep that their party has cut away the baggage of Donald Trump almost a year to the day he lost the presidency.
Youngkin, a former private-equity CEO and first-time candidate, narrowly defeated Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday in a race that captured national attention. The Republican took advantage of Joe Biden’s plummet in the polls and the controversies roiling public schools, especially in politically important Loudoun County. A half-dozen GOP consultants and operatives shared their assessment of the race with Intelligencer on the condition of anonymity.
It wasn’t just that Youngkin won, but that he was able to defang the attack that Democrats used against Republican candidates for the past half decade, tying them to Trump. McAuliffe used this relentlessly. One jibed: “I don’t know what Terry’s message was? ‘I’m not Donald Trump and the guy that I’m going against is Donald Trump’?”
McAuliffe’s attempt to tie Youngkin to Trump and use the former president as a boogeyman seems to be no longer effective, they said: “It’s clear that the blueprint of talking about Donald Trump all the time when he’s not in office is not a winning message, particularly in a state that Joe Biden won by ten points.” (Then again, as one operative noted, Trump didn’t bother to contest the state, so that margin may have inflated just how blue Virginia truly is.)
In fact, they said, Democrats had a greater problem at the top of their party than Republicans did. Biden’s sagging approval ratings, plus a bumpy post-COVID economic recovery dogged by rising inflation, made voters sour on McAuliffe, who was practically an incumbent trying to hold the governor’s mansion for his party (four years after residing there himself). One Republican operative involved in the race noted that Biden’s slide in the polls in August coincided with McAuliffe slipping at the same time. “Joe Biden was more relevant in the race than Donald Trump,” they said.
Politics is still local though, as another longtime operative in the state noted, and Biden’s falling polling numbers were one part of a “perfect storm” that included “the lawlessness we saw throughout Virginia in the streets of Richmond last summer” and “the overreach at a state and local level as we saw with parents’ concerns in Loudoun County and around Virginia.”
Despite their glee, Republicans didn’t think everything was transferable to the midterm elections next year. “I don’t think it was critical race theory and education that caused this wave,” one of the Virginia operatives noted. “What caused it was this lackluster campaign by McAuliffe and a candidate with unlimited money who spent it accordingly.”