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Republican Victory in Virginia’s Governor Race Seen as Bad Omen for Democrats

Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, early Nov. 3, 2021, after defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly, Virginia, early Nov. 3, 2021, after defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

In an election with implications far beyond its borders, the state of Virginia on Tuesday elected Republican businessman and political neophyte Glenn Youngkin to serve as governor, ending a decade-long trend of Democratic domination of state-wide offices and signaling trouble for that party's fate in next year's congressional midterms.

"Together we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth," Youngkin told a crowd of supporters at a victory celebration early Wednesday.

Youngkin took 50.7% of the vote to best Democrat and former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who received only 48.6% in his bid to return to the job he left after leaving office in 2018 due to term limits.

Republicans were successful in all of the statewide races, winning the offices of attorney general and lieutenant governor. Winsome Sears, a conservative Republican, became the first female and first woman of color to win election as lieutenant governor in the commonwealth's 400-year legislative history. The Republicans also seemed poised to retake the House of Delegates, one of the two chambers of the state legislature.

Biden seen as drag on McAuliffe

The race, which culminated a little over nine months into Democrat Joe Biden's first year as president of the United States, was widely seen as a signal of public sentiment toward the president and his party. Biden carried Virginia easily last November, beating then-President Donald Trump by 10 percentage points.

Currently, though, Biden's approval ratings have fallen into negative territory, with just over half of Americans expressing disapproval of his performance, which may have been a drag on McAuliffe's campaign, according to analysts.

"Since August, Biden's national standing has weakened," Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman wrote in an analysis published Wednesday morning by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "That decline, combined with the usual headwinds the president's party faces in off-year elections, helped fuel Youngkin's 12-point net improvement over Trump's 10-point loss in Virginia last year."

Warning signs for Democrats

The result in Virginia is a warning signal for Democrats in Washington. They have struggled to agree among themselves on a way to pass major elements of the president's domestic agenda despite having control of both the House of Representatives and Senate, although by very slim margins. The party is in danger of losing control of both chambers of Congress in next year's elections.

In another warning sign, Phil Murphy, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, was locked in a tight reelection battle with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. The outcome will be decided by a tiny share of ballots yet to be counted. Murphy had been expected to win easily.

"Gov. Phil Murphy's (D-NJ) surprisingly close race in the lower-profile and still-uncalled New Jersey gubernatorial contest also indicates that the poor Democratic environment was a main driver of the party's poor 2021 Election Night," Kondik and Coleman wrote.

A path for Republicans

The Virginia race suggests that there is a viable path forward for Republicans struggling to find their way out of the shadow of Trump, who, despite low favorability ratings with the general public, retains an iron grip on the party's base.

While Youngkin did accept Trump's endorsement, Youngkin did not campaign with the former president, and rarely mentioned him in his public remarks, while McAuliffe used every opportunity to portray Youngkin as a Trump acolyte. Throughout the campaign, Youngkin, a wealthy investment businessman, walked a very narrow path, projecting the image of an amiable suburban father while simultaneously stoking the anger of the former president's base with warnings about hot-button issues.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks in front of the flag of Virginia at an election night party in McLean, Virginia, Nov. 2, 2021. McAuliffe ended up losing to his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks in front of the flag of Virginia at an election night party in McLean, Virginia, Nov. 2, 2021. McAuliffe ended up losing to his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin.

Youngkin was able to successfully bleed away Biden voters in the suburbs of the state's largest urban areas. In northern Virginia, for example, Youngkin took 35% of the vote in Fairfax County, where Trump won only 28% last year. In neighboring Loudoun County, Youngkin took 44.5% of the vote compared to Trump's 36.5% last year.

Early in the campaign, Youngkin refused to say whether he believed that Biden had won the presidential election, keeping himself in line with Trump, who claims, despite copious evidence to the contrary, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him. Youngkin eventually conceded that Biden won legitimately.

‘Sycophantic' devotion to Trump proves unnecessary

The Republican Party is likely to take a couple of lessons from the results in Virginia, said Jennifer N. Victor, an associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at Virginia's George Mason University.

"First, Republicans can win without Trump on the ballot," she said. "And Republicans can win with some emulation of Trump and Trump ideas, and maybe even a few Trump tactics, but that direct, almost sycophantic association with Trump is not necessary in order to get some of the benefits."

Victor said she expects Republican candidates in 2022 to use the lessons learned from the Youngkin campaign.

"Democrats are going to be at a structural disadvantage in 2022, and the president's party usually loses seats in the midterm," she said. "So, if Republicans use the Youngkin playbook in 2022, I'm guessing it'll work out okay for them."

Critical Race Theory

Throughout the campaign, Youngkin played up fears that Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline studied in law schools, is being taught in Virginia's public schools. The theory is not, in fact, part of the state's curriculum, but has been broadly conflated with arguments over how the more controversial aspects of U.S. history -- particularly slavery and "Jim Crow" racism - ought to be taught in schools.

Jim Crow refers to structural racism that was common in the Deep South throughout much of the 20th century. Jim Crow laws mandated segregation policies targeting Black people in the South.

Over the past year in Virginia, school board meetings have been regularly interrupted by white parents angrily denouncing schools for lessons that, they claim, teach white children to feel guilty about the nation's historic treatment of minorities.

Youngkin focused on their concerns, pledging to "ban" Critical Race Theory from the state's schools. Late in his campaign, he ran a controversial ad featuring a woman who claimed that her son had suffered severe psychological distress after reading a book assigned in English class about slavery. The boy was a senior in high school at the time, and the book was Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

Analysts believe that McAuliffe harmed his own chances when, in a debate with Youngkin in September, he seemed to belittle the concerns of parents, saying, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."

Trump takes credit

Despite Youngkin's efforts to distance himself from the former president, Trump took credit for the victory, attributing it to supporters pushing his "Make America Great Again" slogan, which he abbreviated as MAGA.

In a statement released by his spokesperson, he said, "I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you he would not have been close to winning. The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before. Glenn will be a great governor. Thank you to the people of the commonwealth of Virginia and most particularly, to our incredible MAGA voters."