Youngkin, GOP Sweep Virginia
It's usually more effective to run for something rather than against someone.
As noted in my previous post, my home state of Virginia highlighted a bad night for Democrats. Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race and Winsome Sears and Jason Miyares will be lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively.
In addition to holding elections for state offices in odd-numbered years, which surely depresses turnout, the Commonwealth clings to the archaic practice of limiting the governor to a single, consecutive four-year term. Democrat Terry McAuliffe won in 2013, facing a Republican so repugnant even the right-wing Richmond Times-Dispatch couldn’t endorse, he won in an election I sat out. He ran essentially unopposed for the Democratic nomination again, seeking to be the first to win a second term in decades. This time, I held my nose and voted for him. While he easily won the Northern Virginia suburbs where I live, he didn’t fare well in most of the state.
But, using NYT graphics, here’s the shift from last November’s Presidential vote:
There’s literally not a blue arrow on this map: Youngkin outperformed Trump and McAuliffe underperformed Biden across the state. As noted in my previous post, I blame this partly on the depressed turnout inherent in holding this contest so soon after a Presidential race. A million fewer people voted in this contest compared to that one, despite 45 days to do so.
But there’s more to it. McAuliffe is just a lousy candidate. He came in third in the 2009 primaries against a terrible field and won in 2013 and 2021 essentially by default. And he ran a lousy campaign, trying to convince Virginians to cast another vote against Donald Trump rather than to give him another four years in the governor’s mansion.
WaPo (“Republican Glenn Youngkin wins Virginia governor’s race“):
McAuliffe worked relentlessly to tie Youngkin to the unpopular Trump and warned that Virginia’s recent record of Democratic policy changes — from safeguarding abortion and voting rights to expanding access to health care — could be at risk if Youngkin won.
He also accused the Republican of fanning the flames of racism and brought former president Barack Obama, Vice President Harris and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams to Virginia to try to build enthusiasm among Black voters, a crucial Democratic constituency.
It was unclear how well the push panned out, though Democrats’ efforts to establish expansive early-voting access helped result in good turnout at the polls.
Christopher E. Piper, the commissioner of the state’s elections department, said turnout was higher than expected in some localities, forcing some precincts to rely on supplemental ballots after they ran out of normal ones.
“We saw pretty high turnout in some of these areas,” he said. “The good news is, there are procedures in place to ensure that voters can get ballots and that they can get ballots to the precincts in a timely manner so that voting can go on unimpeded.”
About 1.2 million Virginians cast their ballots in person or by mail between Sept. 17 and Oct. 30, only the second year the state has allowed no-excuse absentee voting for such an extended period. Preliminary exit polling estimated turnout at 53.3 percent, smashing the 47 percent mark set in 2017.
The governor’s race also broke records for fundraising in Virginia, with the two major-party candidates raising roughly $115 million combined, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
While Republicans hadn’t won statewide in Virginia since 2009, the state also has a record of electing a governor from the opposite party of whoever is in the White House — broken only once in the past 40 years, by McAuliffe in 2013.
While he was too Trumpist for my tastes, Youngkin seems to have figured out how to keep the MAGA folks in the coalition while not scaring off moderate suburbanites.
NYT (“Glenn Youngkin’s Journey From the Heights of Finance to the Top Tier of G.O.P. Politics“):
One year ago, Glenn Youngkin was well known in the world of high finance, but almost a complete cipher in politics.
After a remarkable upset in the race for governor of Virginia, Mr. Youngkin is the newest star of the Republican Party, whose campaign will be reverse-engineered for its lessons by both parties, and whose political future may hardly be limited to four years in the cream-colored Executive Mansion in Richmond.
A natural campaigner running his first race, Mr. Youngkin found a way to enlist both the Republican base still in thrall to Donald J. Trump and less ideological Republicans who rejected the party in the Trump era. Furious Democratic attacks that he was a Trumpian wolf in suburban-dad fleece never quite stuck because, in both biography and manner, Mr. Youngkin did not fit the former president’s bullying, self-aggrandizing profile. His ability to direct multiple messages — red meat to the G.O.P. base via interviews with right-wing media, and a less divisive pitch to swing voters, including on parental input for schools — will serve as a blueprint for his party in the midterms.
With a personal fortune estimated by Forbes at $440 million, Mr. Youngkin contributed $20 million to his own bid. That lavish sum paid for top-tier G.O.P. consultants and an avalanche of TV ads, and it prompted speculation that Mr. Youngkin’s sights were set beyond Virginia, where governors must step down after a single term.
His victory running as a conservative in a seemingly Democratic redoubt — no Republican had won statewide in Virginia in a dozen years — could make Mr. Youngkin, 54, a contender within his party nationally if its voters decide they are ready to move on from Mr. Trump and Trumpism.
During the campaign, Mr. Youngkin blanketed the airwaves with ads attacking his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. But at the outset, the ads introduced the political unknown as someone from modest means, whose father lost a job, forcing a teenage Glenn to find work washing dishes. The family moved to Virginia Beach, where he attended a private day school, Norfolk Academy.
A basketball scholarship earned him a ride to Rice University in Houston, a Division I program where he mostly warmed the bench and was listed as 6 feet 7 inches (he now puts his height at 6-foot-5). He later attended Harvard Business School. His career followed the well-trod path of former varsity athletes from elite private colleges who head into finance.
In the crowded Republican primary field, with most candidates vying for a Trump base that largely believed the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen because of fraud, Mr. Youngkin made “election integrity” his top issue.
He acknowledged only after securing the nomination in May that President Biden had won. Mr. Trump’s endorsement, which came soon after, was “an honor,” Mr. Youngkin said. Mr. Trump at one point called him “a great gentleman” and offered to campaign together. But Mr. Youngkin dodged rallies at which Mr. Trump phoned in his support, while the former president continued to fan election conspiracy theories.
Glossing lightly over his own policy priorities during the early part of the race, Mr. Youngkin soft-pedaled traditional conservative issues like gun rights and abortion, at one point confiding to a liberal activist with a hidden mic that he had to downplay abortion to court independent voters. The National Rifle Association skipped an endorsement in July after Mr. Youngkin failed to fill out a questionnaire about his views.
Instead, Mr. Youngkin found his own galvanizing issue in some parents’ frustration with public schools, beginning with Covid-driven closures, and extending to conservatives’ belief that classwork has become overly conscious of racial differences.
While he has promised to end a sales tax on groceries and to cut regulations to spur new businesses, Mr. Youngkin’s best known pledge is to ban critical race theory in schools on Day 1, even though that graduate-school thesis about the role of racism in American institutions has little impact on K-12 classrooms, educators say. To Democrats, the issue has been no more than an appeal to white voters’ grievances.
Whether Mr. Youngkin’s outreach to conservatives on cultural issues came from the heart, embodying the anger that drove the grass roots, or whether it was a convenient garment he put on along with his trademark red vest, hardly mattered in the end to Republicans and many independent voters.
WaPo’s Paul Schwartzman gets perhaps a bit too carried away, proclaiming “With Youngkin victorious, a post-Trump Virginia returns as a swing state.”
For months, the political establishment predicted that Virginia’s gubernatorial race was Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s to lose.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had won the state by nine points in 2017 and President Biden had trounced Donald Trump by 10 points last year. Those victories added grist to the prevailing perception that the commonwealth was no longer welcoming to Republicans running statewide.
Yet in the first election since Trump left Washington, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory over McAuliffe on Tuesday upended any notion that Virginia is a Democratic stronghold.
A dozen years after last winning statewide races in the commonwealth, the Republicans were heading for an apparent sweep of Virginia’s top three races, including the campaigns for lieutenant governor and attorney general.
The results demonstrated that Virginia’s identity as a Democratic safe harbor was fleeting, existing mainly while Trump was the nation’s dominant political force, despite recent election results suggesting otherwise and demographic shifts in Northern Virginia over the past two decades that had helped Democrats.
“Virginia was a purple state for quite some time and was always a purple state underneath,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic consultant. “But in the Trump era, we became a blue state in reaction to his policies. We will go back to being a swing state going forward.”
The results Tuesday were reminiscent of the 2009 election, when Republican Robert F. McDonnell became governor and led a GOP sweep of the state’s top three offices. Since then, Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the gubernatorial race to McAuliffe by 2.5 points in 2013. The following year, Republican Ed Gillespie came within a percentage point of upsetting incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner.
After Trump’s election, the Democrats’ victory margins grew dramatically in subsequent races — that is, until Tuesday night, when the party appeared to be shut out.
This is just too simplistic. Trump was not a force in national, much less Virginia, politics in 2013. And Virginia voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. And elected Mark Warner and Tim Kaine to successive terms as governor in 2001 and 2005—and then to the Senate in 2008 and 2012. And erstwhile Republican turned Democrat Jim Webb preceded Kaine in the Senate. You simply can’t tie any of that to Trump.
But this is likely right:
“Virginia is a state that leans blue, but it’s not a slam dunk for Democrats,” said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant. “So often we try to put these things in boxes — red and blue. But these things are often fluid.”
That Youngkin ran such a robust campaign in Virginia, Heye said, validates a strategy that future Republican candidates can embrace in the commonwealth and perhaps beyond.
“If you’re a Republican and you’re trashing Trump, your days are numbered,” Heye said. “He didn’t want to alienate the base. He wanted to talk about things that were affecting families every day, things like the grocery tax, job creation and inflation. Would that work in Alabama? No. Montana? No. Virginia? Yes.”
Most of Virginia, territorially, is still a Southern state culturally but the Northern Virginia suburbs and Hampton-Newport News-Virginia Beach areas have had huge population influxes over the last quarter-century. Not only does this mean a lot of transplants with different attitudes—including a lot of South Asian and other nonwhite immigrants—it’s hard to run against Big Government in areas that are prospering from government spending.
The Bulwark’s Tim Miller (“Virginia Results: Giving Up on Rural America Is Proving a Nightmare for Democrats“) makes an interesting argument:
About a year ago I wrote about the big “trade” that had taken place in our politics. Democrats were picking up former Republican “red dogs” who live in the suburbs. Republicans were getting formerly working-class union types who live in the exurbs and rural America.
These shifts had been happening slowly for a long time but they were supercharged when Donald Trump came on the scene, energizing the working-class whites and horrifying suburban moms—and by 2020, their husbands as well. This change seemed to solidify the realignment setting up a divided country for political trench warfare in the years ahead.
Fast-forward to the first major state-wide election since the former guy was dispatched to a South Florida retirement as an investor in social media Potemkin villages and what we found should be extremely alarming for Democrats. In Tuesday’s results coming out the races in Virginia and New Jersey, many of the suburban red dogs and independents who had been powering the blue wave backslid towards the Republicans, while the rural whites continued their march rightward.
In the next few days, barrels of ink will be spilled writing about what happened in the burbs and the merits of the CRT wars, but for present purposes, here’s the main takeaway: Republicans actually came up with a plan to eat into the Democrats’ new coalition and that plan worked. They didn’t throw up their hands and decide the burbs were lost forever. They keyed in on an issue where the Democrats were out of step with the views of some of their voters and won on it. That’s Politics 101.
Meanwhile the Democrats don’t even seem to be trying to do the reverse—to chip away at the GOP hold on working-class whites—despite the fact that there are plenty of potential opportunities to wedge them.
His colleague Jim Swift (“How McAuliffe Lost Virginia“) echoes my earlier observations:
McAuliffe made mistake after mistake on the campaign trail, most notoriously his debate line “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” His opponent, Glenn Youngkin, was walking a tightrope between keeping the MAGA base happy and riling up the suburban Northern Virginia voters about schools and critical race theory. McAuliffe’s debate flub was a gigantic gift to Youngkin
McAuliffe, as uncharming and uninspiring a candidate as the Democratic donor echelon could construct, never regained his footing. He staked his bid on the fact that Youngkin was endorsed by Donald Trump. That is a valid criticism, and could in theory have worked in Virginia—as a supplement for a solid, substantial campaign. But McAuliffe had “no big memorable proposal” for his campaign, so he made Youngkin’s supposed Trumpiness the core of his message. He sounded like a broken record: Youngkin and Trump, Youngkin and Trump, Youngkin and Trump. Virginia voters were unconvinced.
Three other brief takeaways from Tuesday night:
(1) One lopsided aspect of the campaign is striking. In the final weeks, McAuliffe brought in some of the Democratic party’s big guns to help out his campaign: Joe Biden. Barack Obama. Tim Kaine. By contrast, Youngkin didn’t want Donald Trump to stump for him. The Democratic big guns sure didn’t seem very big this time around.
(2) Let’s be clear: What Glenn Youngkin achieved is impressive, but it will likely prove hard to replicate elsewhere. Had COVID-19 not existed and had the Virginia GOP not run a bastard primary to screw over Amanda Chase, he would probably not be the nominee.
(3) Downticket, Winsome Sears defeated Hala Ayala in the race for lieutenant governor. I watched Ayala at a McAuliffe rally in Dumfries and she was impressive, but it seemed that Democrats kept her locked away while Sears, who might have been a little toxic to Youngkin (her campaign posters featured her, a former Marine, carrying an assault rifle) was campaigning downstate. That may have very well paid off for Youngkin, who did not campaign with her often. In Virginia, you don’t vote for the ticket, but the individual office. Of the three statewide Democratic candidates—for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—Ayala’s loss is the most striking. Whether she lost due to political malfeasance or a lack of building her own brand, we may never know. She was the new blood for Democrats.
As a general rule, candidates for chief executive ought run for something rather than against someone. McAuliffe failed in that regard and Youngkin just wasn’t scary enough for it to work.
The Intelligencer’s Ben Jacobs (“GOP Insiders: ‘Joe Biden Was More Relevant in the Race Than Donald Trump’“):
A half-dozen GOP consultants and operatives shared their assessment of the race with Intelligencer on the condition of anonymity.
It wasn’t just that Youngkin won but he was able to defang the attack that Democrats used against Republican candidates for the past half decade, tying them to Trump. McAuliffe used this relentlessly. One jibed: “I don’t know what Terry’s message was? ‘I’m not Donald Trump and the guy that I’m going against is Donald Trump?'”
McAuliffe’s attempt to tie Youngkin to Trump and use the former president as a boogeyman seems to be no longer effective, they said: “It’s clear that the blueprint of talking about Donald Trump all the time when he’s not in office is not a winning message particularly in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points.” (Then again, as one operative noted, Trump didn’t bother to contest the state, so that margin may have inflated just how blue Virginia truly is.)
In fact, they said, Democrats had a greater problem at the top of their party than Republicans did. Biden’s sagging approval ratings, plus a bumpy post-COVID economic recovery dogged by rising inflation, made voters sour on McAuliffe, who was practically an incumbent trying to hold the governor’s mansion for his party (four years after residing there himself). One Republican operative involved in the race noted that Biden’s slide in the polls in August coincided with McAuliffe slipping at the same time. “Joe Biden was more relevant in the race than Donald Trump,” they said.
Politics is still local though, as another longtime operative in the state noted, and Biden’s falling polling numbers were one part of a “perfect storm” that included “the lawlessness we saw throughout Virginia in the streets of Richmond last summer” and “the overreach at a state and local level as we saw with parents concerns in Loudoun County and around Virginia.”
Despite their glee, Republicans didn’t think everything was transferable to the midterm elections next year. “I don’t think it was critical race theory and education that caused this wave,” one of the Virginia operatives noted. “What caused it was this lackluster campaign by McAuliffe and a candidate with unlimited money who spent it accordingly.”
His colleague Ed Kilgore is more pessimistic (“MAGA Without the Madness Wins“):
Youngkin overcame a solid McAuliffe lead in all the early polls and managed to keep Republicans enthusiastic without getting too cosy with Trump, who endorsed him but was only really visible in the campaign in McAuliffe ads that sought to tie the GOP candidate to the leader of his national party.
McAuliffe lost, however, not due to the sort of collapse in Democratic turnout so many had feared as a product of an “enthusiasm gap” fed by Democratic problems in Congress or disappointment in Biden. Turnout was actually strong across the state: Youngkin won by improving significantly on Trump’s vote in both GOP rural strongholds and in exurban swing areas where he was either less threatening or more attractive than the 45th president.
The campaign that led to Youngkin’s win was long, expensive and unpredictable, featuring two candidates with modestly net positive favorability ratings and plenty of money heading into the battle. Youngkin, the very wealthy CEO of the investment firm the Carlyle Group, won the GOP nomination in May by being just MAGA enough to win Trump voters while coming across as a traditional Republican favoring limited government and pro-business measures. As the general election developed, Youngkin continued taking a businessman-outsider stance while muting his earlier Trumpiness. For all his temperamental centrism, however, he aggressively deployed two school-based national culture-war themes, attacking the alleged teaching of “critical race theory” (a big cause among exurban conservatives in vote-rich Northern Virginia), and rules accommodating transgender students. He also battened on a more general anxiety among parents about the impact on learning of the pandemic and school shutdowns. McAuliffe played into Youngkin’s strategy by saying in one of the two candidate debates that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach (a quote taken far out of context), which the Republican exploited by holding “Parents Matter” rallies.
I’m rather dubious of this analysis, though. For example, for all the national attention that the literal fights with school boards over CRT in neighboring Loudon County, McAuliffe carried it 55-44. Then again, that’s 10 points worse than Dems performed in 2017. But it’s too early to tell how much of this was on the issues versus the Dems having a more attractive candidate and the GOP a much less attractive one in that contest.
I continue to be skeptical that an off-off year election tells us all that much about next year’s midterms, much less the 2024 Presidential race. Masking, vaccinations, school boards, and the rest are unlikely to be lasting issues a year, much less three years, from now. I have no idea at all what will replace them as the issues most salient to voters. Three years is an eon in American politics.
Youngkin is a more “traditional” Republican than, say, Florida Governor Rich DeSantis, who seems to otherwise be the leading non-Donald Trump candidate for the 2024 nomination. But he remains too Trumpy for my tastes. I may well have been less enthusiastic in voting for McAuliffe yesterday morning than I was for Hillary Clinton five years ago. Mostly, though, that’s because Youngkin isn’t as odious as Trump.