Republican Glenn Youngkin broke his party’s decade-long losing streak in Virginia last night by defeating Terry McAuliffe for governor. While his margin of victory was small, at two points, he overcame years of political trends and sealed an impressive victory. Democrats, naturally, are panicking–as they do at the drop of a hat. But if this election holds lessons for either party, the Democrats are on the wrong side of them.

The geography of Youngkin’s victory is instructive. Virginia’s suburbs, which had shifted hard left in reaction to the disastrous Trump presidency, snapped back to the right by striking margins. Youngkin did not win places like Loudoun County, but he did much better than former President Trump. It turns out that center-right suburbs have not completely abjured their history of voting Republican. The bluing of suburban Virginia did not start with Donald Trump, but their dramatic shift toward Democrats appears not to have been a permanent and unchangeable trend.

Democrats across the country should take careful note of what happened in Virginia’s suburbs. There are communities like Loudoun County ranging from Orange County, California to the capitol county of North Carolina. In many of these places, Democrats have found themselves ascendant. But their run of victories clearly is not guaranteed to last without Trump as the party’s foil. The party shouldn’t panic or expect these counties to start voting red in contravention of five years of political evolution, but they will have to fight to keep voters who, apparently, are not deeply attached to the party they had been voting for.

Equally concerning, especially for Democrats in heavily rural North Carolina, was Youngkin’s ability to match and even overperform Donald Trump in rural areas. In Roanoke County, located in the state’s conservative southwestern panhandle, Youngkin received 66% of the vote, greater than Trump’s figure of 60%. Rural turnout was powerful and Youngkin won those areas by towering margins. One may surmise that his cultural warfare ignited passion in conservative rural Virginia, just as potently as Trump’s white supremacist road show. This lesson will not be lost on North Carolina Republicans.

Youngkin showed the ability of a savvy candidate with a quiver full of compelling issues to overcome Trump-era trends. He had an attractive profile for suburban voters and chose issues that bridged the cultural divide between moderate swing voters and his party’s rural base. Ominously for Democrats, one of these was the issue of education. Democrats have owned the education issue for decades, ranging from Bill Clinton’s “M2E2” to Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top.” If Republicans have defanged the Democratic advantage on education matters, Democrats will have to think much harder about how to appeal to women and men in college-credentialed suburban areas.

Finally, the political environment once again mattered the most. Joe Biden’s presidency is in a rut, with a troubled economy, a stalled legislative agenda, and fresh memories of a fiasco in Afghanistan. The primacy of the political environment in influencing last night’s results is evident in the fact that Democrats underperformed severely in the blue state of New Jersey. Virginia’s outcome was not purely particular to the Old Dominion; it represented an electoral climate that should harden Democrats’ determination to pass their agenda while they can, and to fight for their majorities as they must.


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