“There’s no way McAuliffe is losing today.”
– NursePatrickQ, tweeting about 4 p.m. on Election Day
Democrats who are staring in disbelief at the election returns underscore exactly why they lost: They did not fully understand the state they’ve been governing.
Parties often understand why they’re about to lose. That does not appear to be the case here. I hesitate to say a party deserves to lose but the fact that so many Democrats are astonished by Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the governor’s race suggests they were out of touch with the Virginia electorate and might benefit from being chastened.
National commentators – who often know little about the state beyond the Beltway – will jump to a lot of conclusions, some of them perhaps even right, some of them not so much. President Joe Biden’s current unpopularity certainly hurt Democrats and helped Republicans, but this race was about much more than that. Biden alone did not sink Terry McAuliffe; McAuliffe helped himself do that. Put another way, McAuliffe could have overcome an unfavorable national climate for Democrats but he couldn’t overcome his own mistakes. And even that doesn’t fully explain the outcome.
From my vantage point – having followed Virginia politics for four decades (or more) – here are nine reasons why the election turned out the way it is.
- McAuliffe was not nearly as well-liked as Democrats thought. Keep in mind that McAuliffe couldn’t win a majority in 2013 against Ken Cuccinelli, the most polarizing candidate Republicans have ever put forward. He only took 47.7% then in a three-way race. In November 2017, when Virginians were voting for his successor, a Roanoke College poll found that only 43% of Virginians approved his handling of the governorship. Nonetheless, Virginians elected Ralph Northam by a wide margin, which suggests that Virginians were more interested in punishing Republicans for Donald Trump than they were in rewarding Democrats for McAuliffe.
- McAuliffe failed to excite much of the Democratic base. McAuliffe was the classic “corporate Democrat.” This is a guy who, in office, endorsed not one but two natural gas pipelines, which might have been good for business but which infuriated environmentalists. We’ll need more number-crunching than we can do on short notice on election night, but it appears that turnout among Black voters was particularly low. Does this mean Democrats should have nominated a more “progressive” candidate? I think that would be the wrong conclusion. In this environment, a truly left-wing candidate might have run even worse. But Democrats clearly needed a candidate who could excite the broad spectrum of Democratic voters – and McAuliffe wasn’t it.
- Youngkin skillfully distanced himself from Trump. This is a really big deal, and it comes with many layers. McAuliffe spent much of the campaign shouting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Except that when voters saw Youngkin, they didn’t see Trump at all. Youngkin appeared to be nothing more than a classic Mitt Romney-style Republican, straight out of the business community. He certainly didn’t come across as threatening, unless you consider the very idea of a Republican threatening (and in these polarized times, some do). Trump repeatedly tried to claim credit for Youngkin, but that’s just Trump trying to horn in. Politically, Youngkin got the benefit of both worlds: He played just enough footsie with the Trumpers to keep them engaged, talking up “election integrity” while coming across to the suburban voters who had recoiled from Trump as a normal Republican who conceded that yes, Biden really had won the election. Bottom line: Youngkin showed that Republicans don’t need to kowtow to Trump to win. There were other contenders for the nomination who were far more aligned with Trump. They lost. And in the general election, Youngkin went out of his way to avoid saying or doing anything that reminded voters of Trump.
- Youngkin was a surprisingly good candidate. Youngkin had never run for office before, never been involved in politics before. That made him a unique figure in Virginia politics. We’ve never had a candidate for governor with such a blank slate. Linwood Holton, Mark Warner, even McAuliffe in 2013 had never held office before either, but each had run for office and had been involved in politics in other ways. We had some sense of their instincts. Youngkin was a complete unknown. You never really know how a candidate like that will perform at such a high level. It turns out Youngkin was a really good candidate. He was an adroit campaigner – see point 3 about how he kept the Trumpers in line while never embracing Trump enough to turn off suburban voters. He was relentlessly upbeat and on message. He also had a knack for saying very little of substance and looking really good while saying it. (We really have no idea what Youngkin will do in office.) Given Virginia’s proximity to Washington, Youngkin’s national star is going to shine very brightly as a way for Republicans to win. Here’s the catch: Youngkin may be a very unique candidate. For years, people used the term Reaganesque to describe certain candidates. Youngkin was Reaganesque. Moreover, he was Youngkinesque.
- Republicans were enthusiastic. Democrats were not. This often happens with parties out of power. They’re eager to get back in. The party in power gets complacent. That phenomenon was probably heightened this time around by Trump, who distorts almost everything he comes in contact with. Democrats were simply exhausted after four years of Trump. Once they won last year, they checked out. And nothing McAuliffe did inspired them to check back in. Republicans, meanwhile, hadn’t won a statewide election in Virginia in 12 years. They gave Youngkin a lot of leeway to say, or not say, whatever he needed to say, or not say, to win. Here’s one measure of how enthusiastic Republicans were: In Roanoke County, the 3 p.m. vote totals exceeded the entire vote totals from four years ago. You can sure bet those “extra” voters weren’t Democrats. They weren’t really “extra” voters, either. They were voters accustomed to voting in presidential elections but not gubernatorial ones. That’s called motivation. Democrats had that in 2017 and 2019. Republicans had it in 2021.
- With Trump out of office, Democrats didn’t have much to run on. For four years, Democrats had the specter of Trump to excite their base and terrify swing voters (and yes, there are still swing voters). But with Trump out of office (even if not out of sight), that’s not enough. McAuliffe spent much of the campaign trying to tie Youngkin to Trump. It obviously didn’t work, partly because Youngkin didn’t remind voters of Trump at all, and partly because voters may no longer care now that Trump is gone. Without the Trump card, McAuliffe didn’t seem to have much to run on.
- Republicans re-fashioned themselves as the education party. Not all these points are of equal importance; this one is clearly a big one. Schools figured in this election in a way we haven’t seen. A lot of times when candidates talk about education, voters don’t really pay that much attention. Sure, teachers pay attention when candidates (usually Democrats) promise pay raises. But a lot of education policy seems pretty distant and esoteric. This year, there were things parents understood pretty clearly and didn’t need any candidate for governor to explain to them. Some were upset over virtual schooling. Some were upset over mask policies. Some were upset over transgender policies. It’s hard to imagine a worse political decision than requiring every locality to debate and adopt a transgender policy. That was not likely to help Democrats, or improve the environment for transgender kids. Democrats (and transgender kids) would have been better off if Richmond had just imposed a policy. But no, every school board in the state had to debate one. And then there was critical race theory, which seems a mostly made-up issue as far as Virginia schools go, but Republicans skillfully made it the most important issue of the day for many voters. Maybe McAuliffe could have swatted away all that, but then in the final debate he blurted out “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.” I think we all know what he meant: Do we really want parents showing up at school board meetings with the list of books they don’t want taught? On the other hand, that quote perfectly summed up exactly what a lot of parents felt was wrong. Turns out, they do want more say in their kids’ education. McAuliffe came off sounding like the know-it-all elitist, Youngkin seemed more in tune with parental concerns. When Youngkin ran a campaign ad that featured a parent who objected to the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, Democrats accused him of a racial dog whistle. But maybe, just maybe, some parents just don’t think their kids should be reading a book with so much sex (and bestiality)? Democrats are going to have a hard time figuring out how to deal with the education issue as it has now presented itself because this will be an uncomfortable topic for some party activists. Still, the electoral facts seem clear: Some of the voters who helped put Democrats in office in 2017 and 2019 and 2020 now seem to have pretty clearly said they don’t want Trump but they’re not that interested in being “woke.” The party’s left-wing activist corps is not going to like that message. And yet there it is. I have a neighbor who last year posted an anti-Trump sign, a pretty brave thing in rural Virginia. This year he put up a handmade sign that said “Be Prepared. Dems R Insane.” If you’re looking to understand why a state that voted Biden last year voted Youngkin this year, he’s why.
- The pandemic has lost its power as a political issue. The virus helped elect Biden; Trump would have been better advised to pay more attention to how to defeat it. McAuliffe thought he could run much of this campaign on the virus. But neither Youngkin nor the virus played along. When McAuliffe tried to portray Youngkin as an anti-vaxxer, Youngkin spent much of the debate making the case why people should get vaccinated. He sure didn’t sound like a vaccine skeptic. Then the virus spiked again – but maybe a little too soon for Democrats. By Election Day, infection rates were going down in most places. More importantly, they were lowest in the most populous parts of the state, which probably meant voters there weren’t thinking as much about the pandemic as they once did. That left them free to think about other things. The highest infection rates are in the rural parts of the state that were never going to vote for McAuliffe anyway. In a way, Democrats were victims of their own success.
- Virginia was never as blue as Democrats thought. Virginia has certainly been trending Democratic, but Trump accelerated that process. The question going into this campaign was how much of that suburban realignment was permanent and how much was temporary. The answer: Enough was temporary that the right Republican in the right year could still win. And that was obviously this year. Democrats were guilty of that age-old political sin: hubris. We should also remember that even in the bluest of states, Republicans sometimes still win. Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont are all rightly considered liberal states. They also all have Republican governors. Now Virginia will, too, and Virginia was never as liberal as any of them – and for the next four years, it certainly won’t be.