You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, Bob Dylan once sang, and you don’t need to be a political pundit to know what the headlines in Virginia newspapers will be three weeks from today.
They will either be some version of “McAuliffe elected governor” or “Youngkin elected governor.”
True, there’s always the possibility they will be “Aliens arrive from Alpha Centauri; declare they are from interstellar government and are here to help us; relocations to prison moon of Vega begin soon.”
But let’s stick with the two most likely possibilities. Since we already know the headlines, we can go ahead and imagine what those two stories might say – which allows us to work backwards to figure out how Virgina arrived at either outcome.
- Why McAuliffe won (or, if you don’t want to live in the future, why he will win): This is the easiest scenario to imagine simply because it’s the most expected. So close your eyes, imagine it’s Wednesday, Nov. 3, then open them again to read this:
Terry McAuliffe – the once and now future governor of Virginia – had one big thing going for him in this year’s campaign. Virginia has changed. McAuliffe did not win because he is extraordinarily popular. He’s not. He could only poll 47.7% against a controversial Republican nominee (Ken Cuccinelli) in a three-way race in 2013. Four years ago, on the eve of the election that elevated Ralph Northam as his successor, a Roanoke College poll found that only 43% of those surveyed approved of his handling of the office. Voters have never clamored for McAuliffe. Still, each election has seen Virginia painted a deeper shade of blue. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009 and it was those shifting demographics – particularly in Northern Virginia – that sustained McAuliffe in an unexpectedly close contest. This election confirmed what we’ve been seeing for the past few cycles: Virginia now is a default Democratic state.
That realignment was helped by none other than Donald Trump. Northam didn’t win four years ago because voters wanted “four more years” of Democratic governance in Richmond. They just didn’t want Trump, and they wanted to punish every Republican in sight. If it weren’t for Trump, Republicans might still be the majority party in the General Assembly. Instead, Trump has permanently tarnished the Republican brand, particularly among suburban voters. The suburban realignment toward Democrats is as real as and ultimately more important than the rural realignment toward Republicans. (Why? There are a lot more suburban voters than rural voters.) McAuliffe spent much of the campaign trying to paint Youngkin as, in his words, “a Trump wannabe.” This was always preposterous; Youngkin was no Trump acolyte. He seemed a perfectly normal pre-Trump Republican from the business community who was stuck trying to navigate new political realities – a Republican base dangerously in the thrall of a personality cult, and suburban voters who recoil at any mention of Trump. If this had been 2013, Youngkin would have easily defeated McAuliffe. But it’s not 2013 anymore. The lesson here for Republicans, both in Virginia and nationwide, should be a sobering one: They must purge themselves of the Trump poison.
Now let’s look at the other possibility, and the scenario by which it might happen (which is far more likely than many Democrats care to admit):
- Why Youngkin won: Youngkin’s victory over a former Democratic governor in what had been considered a Democratic-trending state is sending shock waves through the nation’s political establishment, and it should, but not for the reasons many think. Trump was quick to declare that he was responsible for Youngkin’s election, but that’s not the case. Youngkin won in spite of Trump, not because of him. Youngkin was able to sell himself to suburban voters in a way Trump never was (and never tried). Youngkin was, in many ways, no different from Ed Gillespie four years ago – a generic Republican – except that Gillespie had the burden of Trump chained to him. Four years ago, Democratic voters were furious and voted in almost unprecedented numbers in an off-year election. Now, with Trump out of office, those voters were far less motivated, and many stayed at home. By contrast, it was Republican voters who were more energized. Republican enthusiasm was enough to overcome whatever fundamental advantage a Democrat might have in Virginia these days. Maybe Virginia was never as Democratic as people thought it was; maybe it was only Democratic because Republicans did a poor job of fielding candidates that could appeal to a majority of voters.
As is often the case with a party out of power, Republicans gave Youngkin lots of leeway in how he presented himself. Youngkin himself was caught on tape telling some Republican voters he couldn’t talk about abortion because that would drive away independents. During the first debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Youngkin said he wouldn’t sign a bill similar to the Texas abortion law – but never said just what kind of bill he would like to see. Youngkin may have been a first-time candidate but he proved to be an adroit campaigner. He also turned out to be a pretty good debater. In hindsight, Youngkin made a mistake by skipping the first planned debate and then agreeing to only two others: The more McAuliffe debated Youngkin, the better Youngkin looked. McAuliffe tried to depict him as a Trump acolyte but Youngkin simply came across as what he likely is – a Republican businessman with conservative tendencies but not a culture warrior. The more McAuliffe tried to claim that Youngkin was against vaccinations, the more that gave Youngkin a chance to make a case for vaccinations. The debate audience never heard Youngkin’s interviews on “right-wing radio,” as McAuliffe liked to describe them; they only saw what Youngkin said in the debate, and he didn’t seem scary at all.
Youngkin did benefit from Trump in one way: the firestorm over “critical race theory” in schools. That’s almost entirely a made-up issue – it’s not being taught – but enough people became convinced that it was, or might be, that it energized some Republicans in a way that a mild-mannered candidate like Youngkin never could. Democrats misread the times: Some parents were furious over a phantom curriculum. Others were furious over things that are more real, be they transgender policies or mask policies. Republicans were able to successfully channel all those frustrations; Democrats seemed to want to ignore them and hope they’d go away. Voters might also have been left dizzy by all the changes that have come with a state government fully in control of Democrats – Confederate statues down, marijuana legalized, abortion rules loosened and gun laws tightened. It’s unclear how many of those things voters really want to undo (legal marijuana has been surprisingly popular with Republican voters in other states) but maybe it was a little far too fast? Maybe voters just wanted to hit the pause button for a while?
As is often the case, both parties will probably read the wrong lessons into Youngkin’s election, but this much seems clear: Yes, there is life for Republicans after Trump. And Democrats aren’t as popular as they’d like to believe. If a non-Trump Republican can win in Virginia in 2021, perhaps a non-Trump Republican could win in other places in 2024?
OK, you get the idea. … But these are the dynamics at play in this year’s election – Republican enthusiasm versus a Democratic electoral advantage. Although we know one of those headlines will be real, we don’t know what the sub-head will be. Do Democrats retain their majority in the House of Delegates or do Republicans take it back? It’s easier to envision the latter if Youngkin wins – that’s an outcome that would set in motion the biggest changes, although Republicans would still have to deal with a state Senate narrowly controlled by Democrats. However, is it possible that McAuliffe might win the governorship by a narrow margin but voters decide they want the check of a Republican House of Delegates? Or will voters decide they’ll give Youngkin a try but hold onto a Democratic General Assembly as a hedge against him going too far right? Or will we see voter affirmation that Virginia really is now a blue state?
We may be able to guess the headlines but it’s harder to guess at what the full story will be.
Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.