Terry McAuliffe’s failure to capture another term as Virginia governor is ultimately rather easy to comprehend. The state party is loyal to the former governor, and lined up behind his candidacy early. For this reason, the nomination was always his to lose. But the party had set a trap for itself. Its preferred candidate was well known and not particularly popular. Had Glenn Youngkin been a different kind of Republican – a Ken Cuccinelli, defeated by McAuliffe in 2013 – the Democrat would’ve had a decent chance of success.
But this is not 2013, and Youngkin ran an intelligent campaign. While he whipped white suburbanites into a frenzy over parental choice in public schools, he kept Donald Trump at a distance. He figured out how to tap into racial grievance politics, as Trump did, while putting a more palatable public face on his right-wing politics. And McAuliffe had no effective response. Though the Democrat ran on issues like a $15 minimum wage, he tried, repeatedly, to yoke Youngkin to Trump. A vote for McAuliffe was a vote against Trump, or so he wanted the state’s suburbanites to believe. To white rural voters, like those in my native southwest Virginia, the linkage of Youngkin to Trump likely proved attractive and I believe it is conceivable that McAuliffe may’ve done Youngkin a favor in these areas.
To recap: Virginia Democrats united behind an unpopular Democrat who spent years in public life and ran on not being Trump while failing to offer voters a compelling alternative vision. That strategy didn’t work in 2016 when the candidate was HIllary Clinton, and there was no way it was going to work now. While it’s arguably true that the GOP remains the party of Trump, and that a reactionary lurks behind Youngkin’s polite facade, reality does not necessarily dictate voter behavior. Moreover, McAuliffe didn’t actually have to try to convince anybody that Youngkin is a reactionary at all. He just had to explain what he, in contrast to Youngkin, would offer to voters, and since he’s already served one term as governor this shouldn’t have been difficult to accomplish. Yet it was beyond him.
Instead of running a version of Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign, McAuliffe should have borrowed from Joe Biden, who in 2020 ran to Clinton’s left and emphasized economic issues on the campaign trail. Even then, the fact that Trump was the sitting president helped carry Biden to a narrow victory, and McAuliffe didn’t have that advantage. His margins were always going to be narrower than Biden’s, with significantly less room for error. That McAuliffe didn’t have the political skill to navigate such turbulent water in a state he’s already served as governor reflects on him, and his enablers — not the left, not even Biden.
The Democratic Party and its state affiliates are going to have to remember that Trump is not on the ballot or in power. They cannot hope that voter antipathy for him extends to the entire Republican Party in perpetuity. Nor is centrism, and the suppression of the party’s entire left flank, a guaranteed path to victory. The party has to figure out what it stands for apart from its contrast to Trump and Republicans. The best time to do so was years ago. The next best time is now.