Seldom has one state’s gubernatorial election portended so much for the entire nation. Tomorrow marks election day in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and what happens when voters go to the polls will signify a great deal about where our politics are headed for the foreseeable future. North Carolina politicos should take particular heed of trends in the Commonwealth, for although the two states differ in important ways, we are, after all, neighbors, and what happens in one state often affects the other. This is a high-stakes election if ever there was one.
As we approach election day, polling shows the race to be in a statistical tie. Alarmingly for Democrats, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe finds himself on the wrong side of the ledger. FiveThirtyEight has Glenn Youngkin ahead of McAuliffe by a one-point margin, 47.8% to 46.8%. Another source of concern for Democrats should be the recent tendency of polls to understate Republican support. At least based on public opinion surveys, the Democratic Party faces an ominous night in a state that many believed had become solidly blue.
Equally concerning is that Youngkin has gained this lead by employing tactics translatable to other swing states. He has emphasized education to the exclusion of other concerns, and seems to have crafted a message on public schools that Republicans across the country could use in next year’s midterm elections. Many parents are alarmed at what they see as a growing radicalism in school curricula. Youngkin, opportunistically but with great effectiveness, has made parental discontent the central focus of his gubernatorial campaign. The message appears to be resonating.
What North Carolina Democrats in particular should pay attention to is how Youngkin’s education message plays in suburban Virginia. Loudoun County, near Dulles Airport, has traced a similar political trajectory to North Carolina’s Wake County over the last 20 years. Where George W. Bush narrowly won the county in 2004 (a year in which Wake actually went for Kerry-Edwards by less than a percentage point), Loudoun, like Wake, has begun to vote Democratic by 20-point margins. Murmurings on the ground suggest that Loudoun may be ready to vote GOP again for the first time in years, with education issues being the driving force behind this trend. If Youngkin cuts into the Democratic advantage in Loudoun County, North Carolina Dems should worry about their prospects in what has become a foundation of their statewide support.
If Youngkin threatens to countervail one political trend, observers should pay attention to whether he can propel another further along. The Republican nominee has deftly threaded the needle between staying loyal to Donald Trump and keeping enough distance from the disgraced ex-president to make himself marketable to swing voters. That pro-Trump stance could keep rural Virginia–particularly the Appalachian panhandle in the state’s southwest–revved up for the GOP. In 2018, Republican turnout held strong because of conservative anger related to Brett Kavanaugh. Youngkin may be able to prime the pump once again.
All of this may go out the window if Virginia’s partisan fundamentals win out and give Terry McAuliffe a victory. But a good politician panics before it’s necessary to panic. With the race for Virginia governor so close despite 15 years of bluing of the state’s politics, savvy Democrats should pay careful attention to what happens tomorrow night. A Youngkin victory does not mean imminent political collapse. The way various trends play out, however, will be instructive for the near future of American politics.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.