Republicans got their first big off-year victory since Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat as private-equity guru Glenn Youngkin won the race for Virginia governor against the former governor and arch-Establishment Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
While Youngkin’s win may well be overinterpreted as a national bellwether, it was impressive. After all, Joe Biden won Virginia by ten points exactly one year ago, and current Democratic governor Ralph Northam won by nearly nine points four years ago. Youngkin overcame a solid McAuliffe lead in all the early polls and managed to keep Republicans enthusiastic without getting too cozy with Trump, who endorsed him but was only really visible in the campaign in McAuliffe ads that sought to tie the GOP candidate to the leader of his national party.
McAuliffe lost, however, not due to the sort of collapse in Democratic turnout so many had feared as a product of an “enthusiasm gap” fed by Democratic problems in Congress or disappointment in Biden. Turnout was actually strong across the state; Youngkin won by improving significantly on Trump’s vote in both GOP rural strongholds and in exurban swing areas where he was either less threatening or more attractive than the 45th president. It will take a while to sort through what happened and why, but this seems fair:
The campaign that led to Youngkin’s win was long, expensive, and unpredictable, featuring two candidates with modestly net positive favorability ratings and plenty of money heading into the battle. Youngkin, the very wealthy CEO of the investment firm the Carlyle Group, won the GOP nomination in May by being just MAGA enough to win Trump voters while coming across as a traditional Republican favoring limited government and pro-business measures. As the general election developed, Youngkin continued taking a businessman-outsider stance while muting his earlier Trumpiness. For all his temperamental centrism, however, he aggressively deployed two school-based national culture-war themes, attacking the alleged teaching of “critical race theory” (a big cause among exurban conservatives in vote-rich Northern Virginia) and rules accommodating transgender students. He also battened on a more general anxiety among parents about the impact on learning of the pandemic and school shutdowns. McAuliffe played into Youngkin’s strategy by saying in one of the two candidate debates that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach (a quote taken far out of context), which the Republican exploited by holding “Parents Matter” rallies.
McAuliffe’s own strategy sought to duplicate the very effective messaging of California governor Gavin Newsom, who turned a tense recall election into a rout by tying his opponents to Trump and to unpopular conservative positions on abortion and on COVID-19 masks and vaccines. Youngkin tried to keep his distance from Trump (though he couldn’t prevent a rally honoring January 6 insurrectionists headlined by Steve Bannon, at which the former president called in to praise Youngkin), and there were some signs that COVID was fading as a voting issue for Virginians. But while the Republican couldn’t fully deploy his party’s leader, McAuliffe could and did benefit from personal campaigning by Biden, Kamala Harris, and Barack Obama. And that may have made a key difference in keeping Democratic turnout up.
In the end, the close nature of the race shouldn’t have been a surprise. Only once since 1973 has a Virginia gubernatorial candidate belonging to the party of the president won. That was McAuliffe, in 2013. But his opponent that year was Ken Cuccinelli, a notorious extremist whose campaign was also poorly funded. McAuliffe only won by 2.6 percent. It stands to reason he’d struggle more than a bit against a very well-funded Republican with no record in office to offend swing voters or energize Democrats. Youngkin was exactly the kind of statewide candidate Virginia Republicans needed, and he delivered.