Blair Reeves is Executive Director of Carolina Forward.
Last night, Republican Glenn Youngkin was narrowly elected to the office of Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Though polls had favored Democrat Terry McAuliffe in his quest for a second term as Governor, they tightened considerably in the last few weeks of the race. Not only did Youngkin bag the win, but Republicans generally pulled off a clean sweep of the other major statewide offices as well. There’s just no way around it – it was a bad night for Virginia Democrats, and an outstanding night for the long-bereft Virginia Republicans.
It is a quadrennial tradition for political prognosticators to interpret what results in Virginia’s off-year elections mean for everyone else next year. This is particularly true here in North Carolina, given our deep political, demographic and cultural similarities with our northern neighbor. The most obvious “take” – that Virginia’s results presage what next year will look like – is mostly wrong. In reality, actual historical correlations between Virginia’s off-year election and national midterms are very loose at best. Exit polling will paint a fuller picture later on. And, of course, Youngkin’s winning margin was small. Yet I see three initial and eminently sensible takeaways from last night’s Republican victories in the Commonwealth.
The first, and simplest, observation is also the most powerful: the party in the White House receives a penalty in off-year elections, and we just saw that penalty in action. This is a repeated, very well-understood and expected result. The White House’s party has lost all but one Virginia gubernatorial races since 1970. (The one exception? Terry McAuliffe in 2013!) True enough, it appeared last night in the form of a small uniform shift across the board towards the GOP – not a particular overperformance in one group or another. Some Republicans outperformed others by small margins, but all pretty much did better than usual. In close races, that’s enough to win. It’s not a sexy explanation, but it’s the most correct one.
The second observation is a derivation from the first: there’s really not much good evidence what key campaign themes, if any, actually moved voters. Youngkin ran a culture war-heavy campaign laden with white grievance politics and make-believe outrage about “critical race theory” that was heavily focused on suburban voters. (A smart target, since that’s where the voter base is expanding.) Yet while suburban voters did shift some his way, though still going for McAuliffe overall, they didn’t do so more than voters in other places. There’s no good case in the actual data on Youngkin’s performance – yet, anyway – that Republican “schoolhouse politics” was particularly motivating to those voters. There’s much better evidence that the overall political environment – think the economy, Biden approval and gas prices – was mildly helpful to Republican candidates across the board.
The same goes for the McAuliffe campaign, which ran almost exclusively on tying Youngkin to Trump (who lost Virginia by ten points). That strategy clearly did not work. Not only is Youngkin a more talented politician than Trump, but voters also just didn’t buy the argument. Voters in Virginia don’t like Trump, but they also clearly don’t indelibly associate all Republicans with him, either.
The last observation is probably the most controversial: more Democrats probably need to think more realistically about what a future winning coalition looks like. The reality is that it probably includes some number of Trump voters who don’t particularly regret their choice (as most of them don’t). After all, some very non-trivial number of Biden voters – most of them white, but not all – cast a vote last night for Glenn Youngkin. These swing voters exist, whatever you’ve read on Twitter. They are not particularly ideological, and most of them have little patience for debates about Trump’s effect on our democracy or cultural positions fashionable among the highly educated urban left. They probably didn’t care too much about “critical race theory,” but the Youngkin campaign’s race-baiting also didn’t bother them much.
Anyone who reads every election result as a vindication of their prior assumptions is neither thoughtful nor actually doing any analysis. I’ll be reading the exit poll research in the coming weeks (election-night polls are mostly worthless, FYI) to understand where I’m wrong. The 2022 midterm elections are just 12 months away, and most of Virginia’s voters – but most notably, its Republicans – have shown us that they’re ready to move on from Trumpism, if not its embrace of hot-button socio-cultural controversy. This shift validates the strategy of folks like Ted Budd and Mark Robinson. We’ll see if the Democrats find something to learn from it too.