One candidate vows to repeal the state’s tax on groceries and challenge Virginia’s biggest utility. The other, a former governor who wants his old job back, warns of all the horrors that will transpire if the other guy takes power.
Sound familiar? It should. This is the 2021 governor’s race. It was also the one in 1973.
In 1973, it was Democrat-turned-Republican Mills Godwin who was playing Horatius-at-the-bridge (thank you, Beulah Cobb, my high school Latin teacher) against the liberal populist Henry Howell. Nearly a half-century later, a few things have changed. Now it’s a classic big-business Republican who is channeling Howell on the food tax and utilities, and a left-of-center Democrat who is trying to defend the current state of affairs.
In 1973, Virginians opted – narrowly, by just 1.4% – to preserve the conservative status quo of the times, rather than turn to Howell, who was considered a heroic crusader to some and a dangerous radical to others. Will Virginians in 2021 opt to preserve the current liberal status quo by giving Democrat Terry McAuliffe a second term? Or will they gamble on Republican Glenn Youngkin, about whom we really know very little but who Democrats claim will bring about our ruination in multiple ways?
The parallels between then and now aren’t exact – few are – but they are similar enough that they help us understand just how much Virginia’s politics have changed in the 48 years in between. How Democrats let the vow to repeal the grocery tax – one of Howell’s favorite issues – slip away to become a Republican issue is just one of many curiosities.
One thing remains a constant, though: the realignment of Virginia politics. In 1973, we were near the beginning of the two parties sorting themselves out along left-right lines, hence Godwin’s reluctant conversion. It’s hard for people to believe now but there was a time when Virginia Republicans were often to the left of Virginia Democrats. Today, we’re seeing a different type of realignment. Suburban voters, who had been drifting away from Republicans, began a stampede away from them during the Donald Trump years. As a consequence, Republicans, who thought their grip on the House of Delegates was secure, saw that chamber flip and Virginia enter a period of Democratic dominance not seen since the last days of Godwin’s first term. Or maybe a period of Democratic dominance never seen, since the Democrats then were generally of a conservative variety. For the first time, Virginia now has a thoroughly left-of-center government, with Democrats in charge of every statewide elected office plus both houses of the General Assembly. The driving question this year is whether suburban voters, who recoiled from Trump and punished every Republican in sight for his presence, have permanently realigned into Democrats or whether Trump’s eviction from the White House will allow them to reconsider Republicans again.
Both parties have a lot riding on the outcome, beyond who sits in the governor’s chair or who wields the speaker’s gavel in the House of Delegates. For better or worse (I generally think worse, but that’s my provincialism showing), this is a race with national implications.
If McAuliffe wins, it will be because those suburbs really have realigned enough that there’s now such a structural advantage for Virginia Democrats that not even a normal, pre-Trumpian Republican such as Youngkin can win. It certainly won’t be because Virginians have any great love for McAuliffe. He couldn’t win a majority last time in a three-way race and four years ago, when we voted on his successor, a Roanoke College poll found that just 43% approved of his handling of the governorship. (For that matter, Godwin was never as popular as history remembers him, either. He didn’t win a majority in 1965 and barely won one in 1973.) Elections sometimes cause both the victors and the losers to learn the wrong lessons. If McAuliffe wins, Republicans ought to do some soul-searching: Youngkin has been a generally appealing and often adroit candidate. He’s certainly not a polarizing figure the way Ken Cuccinelli was in 2017 or U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart was in 2018. He seems more of a George H.W. Bush-era Republican, at home in the boardroom yet now forced to deal with some of the more odious Trumpian figures who have taken over the Republican Party. If he loses, it should be a clear signal to Republicans that they need to purge their party of Trump and all his ilk. I’m skeptical Republicans will really absorb this lesson, though. Still, the reality is that if Youngkin had been running in 2013 instead of Cuccinelli, he’d have surely beaten McAuliffe that year. The main thing that’s changed since then is Trump.
If Youngkin wins, the shock waves nationally will be off the political Richter scale and, as often happens, the national media will draw overly broad conclusions. Trump will surely claim credit, although the reality is that if Youngkin wins, it will be despite Trump and not because of him. It will be because Youngkin found a way to win back suburban voters (at least enough of them) and didn’t go around offending people, which has been Trump’s whole modus operandi. In other words, he will have won much the same way Bob McDonnell did back in 2009, the last time a Republican won the Virginia governorship. It will also be because Republicans appear a lot more enthusiastic than Democrats do. Some of that is because parties out of power are often eager to get back in. Some of that is because Democrats are simply exhausted after fighting Trump for four years. It’s also because McAuliffe does not excite the Democratic base – he’s the classic corporatist Democrat who made a point of endorsing natural gas pipelines as governor, which might be defensible as a business proposition but infuriates the left. It certainly doesn’t help that President Joe Biden is not particularly popular right now or that there’s a third-party candidate, Princess Blanding, who potentially draws votes that otherwise might go to Democrats. It’s also possible that Virginia voters have seen so much dizzying change over the past few years that they simply want to hit the “pause” button for a while and that Youngkin seems a safe, boring alternative in much the same way that Biden was for some voters in 2020. Democrats have not been helped by having every school board in the state debate what its policies on transgender students should be, and Republicans have been very skillful about creating a phantom issue over critical race theory – a theory not taught in any Virginia school but which somehow has become front and center in our politics. If that’s the issue that puts Youngkin over the top, he will have won office on false pretenses, but he will not be the first politician to do so.
McAuliffe also made what may be the worst gaffe I’ve ever seen in a gubernatorial campaign, when he declared during the second debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” This played right into Youngkin’s hands, making McAuliffe seem disinterested at best and hostile at worst to what parents might think about their children’s education. Democrats always like to see themselves as the education party but this year Republicans have done the better job of claiming that mantle, which they see as the key to clawing back some of those suburban voters they’ve lost under Trump. Somehow Youngkin insists he can both cut taxes and produce the state’s biggest education budget ever. Whether that’s possible is an accounting question, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Republican so enthusiastic about declaring he’ll spend more money.
If Youngkin wins, some Republicans will learn the wrong lessons, but so will some Democrats. Democrats, both in Virginia and nationally, will endure a painful argument. Those on the left will say McAuliffe lost because he didn’t energize the left (that is true) and therefore the party should nominate an authentic liberal (this seems quite debatable). Others will say that the party went too far left on some issues (this will definitely be debatable) but that McAuliffe was a poor messenger who was hobbled by factors beyond his control (all that seems quite true). And here’s the thing: Even if McAuliffe wins narrowly, some Democrats may still argue about why he didn’t win by more.
Here’s another factor in this year’s campaign. We know exactly what kind of governor McAuliffe will be because we’ve seen him as governor before. That may reassure some but deprives him of the usual campaign trick of promising to be some magical figure. Meanwhile, we have almost no idea what kind of governor Youngkin would be. We’ve never had a major party candidate about whom we know so little. We’ve had other candidates run for governor who had never served in office – Ed Gillespie in 2017, Mark Warner in 2001, Linwood Holton in 1969 – but all those had been involved in politics before, and had even run statewide before. We had some sense of what they’d be like in office. We have no such insight into Youngkin. Based on his tenure at The Carlyle Group, we can probably guess he’d be a decent executive – although he did apparently lose out in a power struggle there – but we really don’t know. If he’s elected but Democrats retain the House of Delegates, how would he work with Democratic legislators? We haven’t had a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature since the 1990s. Even if Republicans sweep the governorship and take back the House, Democrats will still hold a 21-19 edge in the state Senate for the next two years. How would Youngkin work with Democratic senators? We really have no clue. As a blank slate, he is useful to Republicans because they can project onto him whatever they want to imagine – and he’s a difficult opponent for Democrats because he has no record whatsoever.
On the other hand, while we know McAuliffe’s instincts and temperament, we don’t really know what he’ll do if given a second term, either. Both candidates have run campaigns largely focused on national issues – with McAuliffe shouting “Trump!” at every opportunity and Youngkin warning about the non-existent threat of critical race theory. Indeed, they’ve often refused to talk about state issues, as The Roanoke Times documented when neither candidate wanted to talk about the Mountain Valley Pipeline. And when Youngkin gave a rare interview to the Associated Press, his aides cut off the questioning when the reporter started asking about his policy positions. Meanwhile, McAuliffe walked out of one interview when he didn’t like the questions. Since when do we let candidates get away without answering questions about where they stand on the issues?
There are certainly issues that both McAuliffe and Youngkin ought to talk about, some of them unique to Southwest and Southside Virginia, two parts of the state that are increasingly ignored by both parties. McAuliffe says he wants to accelerate the state’s transition to renewable energy. Does this mean he’d move to shut down the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center near St. Paul – which burns a mix of coal, waste coal and biomass – before its scheduled retirement? If so, how would he replace those jobs? McAuliffe says he wants to create green energy jobs in Virginia – and there are certainly green energy jobs out there to be created – but what would he do to see that they’re in the places where fossil fuel jobs are being lost? We have no idea. Youngkin says he’s in favor of an “all of the above energy policy,” which sounds nice to some, but he’s not addressing these questions, either. We didn’t exactly see The Carlyle Group investing lots of money in Appalachia. Does Youngkin have any kind of plan to counter what appears to be the free market’s general disinterest in rural America? No clue.
Both candidates want to talk about schools, but only on their terms. Does either have a plan for providing state funds for school construction, as state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, has long championed? Does either support a constitutional amendment to close the state’s loophole on the disparity between affluent suburban schools and poor rural ones (something that both Stanley and Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery County, have proposed and something that has been strangled in committee)? Bristol schools superintendent Keith Perrigan recently documented how the state’s Literary Fund, originally created to fund school construction, has instead been raided to pay for teacher pensions. Does either candidate have a plan for how we can meet that obligation and modernize schools? (And, in Youngkin’s case, cut taxes, too?) We have no idea.
All we really know for certain is that McAuliffe isn’t Trump and Youngkin doesn’t like an educational theory that’s not being taught anyway. Over the next four years, we’ll discover what our next governor really wants to do because we sure don’t know now.