Virginia Governor Race: A Blow for the Democrats and a New Electoral Strategy for the Republicans
BY LILY MECKEL
Republican Virginia Gubernatorial candidate and retired businessman Glenn Youngkin pictured campaigning in October 2021. He beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in November 2021.
Republican Glenn Youngkin beat former governor of Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, in the 2021 off-year Virginia gubernatorial elections, becoming the first Republican governor of the state since 2009. This comes as a major upset for the Democratic Party, who had a stronghold on Virginia over the past few years, especially during Trump’s presidency, having won the past four out of five gubernatorial elections, flipped the senate and state legislature blue and led the state by a 10-point margin in the 2020 presidential elections. How did this happen, and what does it mean for Biden and the Democrats?
It is important to consider the meaning of this particular election. It is one of the few elections before the midterm season of 2022, which is viewed as an evaluation of the presidency so far. More often than not, the President’s party doesn’t do well in midterms, as seen by the flip of the House to the Republicans in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 during Obama’s presidency and the flip of the House to the Democrats during Trump’s presidency. In this respect, the election result shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern.
Yet losing a state that has leaned blue since Obama’s election in 2008 and was won by a large margin in 2020, in addition to a record low approval rating for Biden at 43%, is worrying for Democrats and sets a worrying precedent for the midterm season. If Virginia was able to be flipped Republican despite a 10-point lead for Biden just a year ago, then states where the margins were much closer, such as Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, among others, many of which will be up for election in 2022, could inevitably flip too. This would almost guarantee a Republican majority in Congress after the midterms, and since Republicans only need one more seat to flip the Senate, and less than ten to flip the House, in addition to keeping their current seats, this is a highly likely outcome.
Taking a closer look at the candidates and their strategies can help explain this surprising election outcome. Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy former businessman and political newcomer made sure to distance himself just enough from Trump to appeal to swing voters and Independents but also appeal to the Republican base and Trump supporters. Whilst he was endorsed by Trump, he never actively campaigned with him. Winning over suburban Virginians was also key to his victory, as they had turned away from Trump and instead voted for Biden in 2020.
His campaign focused on local issues from education to the economy, which resonated with the electorate, and saw him rally on parents’ anger over school closures due to the pandemic, mask mandates, and the teaching of racism. Critical Race Theory, which shows how racism is systemically embedded in the US, is not part of the school curriculum at all, yet Republicans are constantly mentioning it, framing any conversation about anti-racist education as ‘indoctrinating’ children, thereby stoking white fear – one of Youngkin’s election promises was to ban the teaching of it.
Terry McAuliffe, who had served as governor from 2014 to 2018, and ran again this year, as in Virginia it isn’t permitted to serve two consecutive terms, wasn’t able to create momentum. He put a focus on linking his opponent with Trump, who remains unpopular in the state. This anti-Trump rhetoric failed to turn voters away from Youngkin, as he chose to fix his campaign around local issues instead of responding to these attacks. Comparisons to the former President seem to no longer work as a strategy for Democrats. Campaigning with Biden and other prominent Democrats such as Obama was the last resort for McAuliffe but also did not seem to bring the expected effect. Thus, McAuliffe’s campaign failed to ramp up the electorate and didn’t address voters’ concerns, causing people to turn to Youngkin. The reality is that Biden’s unpopularity, which is linked to the process of pulling out of Afghanistan, the surge of COVID among the unvaccinated, supply chain issues, and the Democrats’ internal divisions did in some shape or form factor into views on McAuliffe.
This election has served as a wake-up call for the Democratic Party. Internal party divisions between moderates and progressives need to be put aside to create a united front if the Democrats want to keep a hold on their slight majority in Congress next year. Passing the infrastructure bill after weeks of heated deliberation within the party might show the electorate cohesion in the party, but it will take more cooperation and party unity on many other fronts to convince voters to vote for them.
Meanwhile, Youngkin has provided Republicans with a strategy that could help win the midterm season. Keeping Trump at arm’s length, appealing to both swing voters and Trump supporters, worked in Virginia and is likely to work in other states. Thus, the Democratic Party needs to do more than be anti-Trump, it needs a concrete action plan and to work together to fulfil promises made in the 2020 elections – or else we are likely to see another shift back to the Republicans, which would seriously hinder the implementation of Biden’s once in a generation agenda and historic investment in America.
Image - Flickr (Eric Brown)