History doesn’t change, but sometimes our understanding of it does.
One day Robert E. Lee is a hero; the next his statue is being sawed in two and hauled away. It’s not just liberals who sometimes say we need to think about our past in a different way. The conservative author Amity Shales has made a career of it, most famously her biography of Calvin Coolidge that tried to reframe him as one of America’s best presidents. You can make the case that the whole Lost Cause phenomenon in the South was conservative revisionist history because it downplayed the role of slavery in leading to the Civil War.
Today it’s my turn to engage in some revisionism, although I have some help – from the 1,663,565 people who voted for Glenn Youngkin for governor.
Until Youngkin’s victory, Virginia had been considered a blue state that was getting bluer with each election. Now, with November’s red wave, we suddenly look a lot more purple. So what gives? Was this year an aberration or was Virginia never as blue as it seemed?
Democrats would prefer the former, and there are certainly a lot of arguments to be made that this year was unique. The political climate favored Republicans, the party had a candidate who inspired an unexpectedly large turnout of conservative voters, while Democrats had a candidate who did not equally inspire his supporters. Even with all that, Republicans barely won – Youngkin came in at 50.57% – but win they did, and that’s ultimately what matters.
No one, least of all Republicans, should be under any illusion that Virginia has suddenly lurched rightward, even though its government will for the next four years. On the other hand, Democrats may be advised not to believe that every election in Virginia will inevitably lead to a Democratic victory. Perhaps they have misunderstood the past decade or so.
Every journalist writing about Virginia politics has, until this year, written that Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. That makes the Democratic trends sound like an inexorable march to the left. Is it?
First, let’s review the state’s recent electoral history.
2006: Democrat Jim Webb defeats Republican incumbent George Allen for the U.S. Senate, by a margin of 49.6% to 49.2%.
2007: Democrats pick up four seats in the House of Delegates, reducing the Republican majority to 54-44 with one independent (Lacey Putney) who caucuses with Republicans. Democrats pick up five seats in the state Senate to regain a majority with 22 Democrats, 18 Republicans.
2008: Barack Obama carries Virginia with 53% of the vote, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since 1964 and only the second since 1948. Democrat Mark Warner wins the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Republican John Warner, who retired. Warner takes 65% against 33.7% for former governor Jim Gilmore. Virginia now has two Democratic U.S. senators for the first time since 1970.
2009: Republicans sweep governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, with Bob McDonnell taking 59%, the highest percentage ever for a Republican candidate for governor in Virginia and the highest for either party since 1961, when Virginia was still effectively a one-party state. Republicans pick up five seats in the House of Delegates and now control 59 seats out of 100. (With two independents caucusing with Republicans, the effective count was 61).
2011: Republicans pick up seven more seats in the House of Delegates and now control 66 — 67 if you add in an independent. Republicans pick up two seats in the state Senate, forcing a tie of 20-20.
2012: Obama carries Virginia again, but with a smaller majority of 51%. Jim Webb retires; Democrat Tim Kaine wins his Senate seat, taking 52.8% against former U.S. Sen. George Allen.
2013: Democrat Terry McAuliffe is elected governor but fails to hit a majority, taking 47.7% in a three-way race. Democrats Ralph Northam and Mark Herring are elected lieutenant governor and attorney general. Meanwhile, Republicans pick up another seat in the House of Delegates and now control 67, which becomes their high-water mark.
2014: In a special election, Republican Ben Chafin flips a previously Democratic seat in the state Senate to give Republicans a 21-18 majority (with another vacancy later filled by a Democrat to become 21-19). For a time, with special elections, the Republican majority in the House bumps up to 68.
2014: In an unexpectedly close U.S. Senate election, Democrat Mark Warner barely wins reelection, taking just 49.1% against 48.3% for Republican Ed Gillespie in a three-way race.
2015: Democrats pick up one seat in the House of Delegates, reducing the Republican majority to 66. No change in the state Senate, with Republicans maintaining a majority of 21-19.
2016: Hillary Clinton carries Virginia, the third time in a row a Democrat has done so, but fails to hit 50%. She polls 49.7% in a multi-candidate race; Donald Trump takes 44.4%, the lowest Republican percentage in a presidential election since Tom Dewey took 43.1% in 1948.
2017: Democrat Ralph Northam is elected governor with 54% of the vote; Democrats also win for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Democrats pick up 15 seats in the House of Delegates. The Republican majority is now reduced to 51-49.
2018: Democrat Tim Kaine is reelected to the U.S. Senate, taking 57% against Republican Corey Stewart, who polled 41%.
2019: Democrats pick up six seats in the House of Delegates, regaining a majority with 55 Democrats, 45 Republicans. Democrats pick up two seats in the state Senate to regain a majority of 21-19.
2020: Joe Biden carries Virginia, the fourth time in a row a Democrat has done so. He wins 54%, the biggest Democratic share of the vote in a presidential election since Franklin Roosevelt took 57% in 1944. Trump’s percentage slips to 44.0%, the lowest Republican percentage in presidential election since Dewey’s 43.1% in 1948. Democrat Mark Warner is reelected to the U.S. Senate, with his percentage swelling again to 56%.
2021: Republican Glenn Youngkin is elected governor with 50.57% of the vote; Republicans are also elected lieutenant governor and attorney general. Completing the sweep, Republicans pick up seven seats in the House of Delegates, regaining a majority with 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats.
Now, that’s a lot of words and numbers, so let’s condense all that into a coherent plot line – or narrative, as some prefer.
Here’s one interpretation: Democrats were starting to rise in the early part of the century; Obama carrying Virginia in 2008 simply put an exclamation point on the state’s leftward drift. Since then, that Democratic trend has continued with only a few exceptions. The 2009 statewide elections saw the party uninspired, with turnout low. The 2014 Senate race, which Warner almost lost, was a result of a bad national climate for Democrats, and Warner not realizing how much the Democratic base in rural Virginia had collapsed. The 2021 election? A unique set of circumstances not likely to be replicated. Three exceptions in 14 years don’t make for a Republican renaissance. Virginia is very much a blue state where Republicans only win when Democrats fumble.
But now here’s another interpretation, a more revisionist interpretation: The recent Democratic domination of the state is a chimera, an accident of history. Yes, there’s definitely been a leftward drift, and yes, Democrats now have a slight structural advantage over Republicans in most statewide races, but the key word there is “slight.” Democrats have mistaken good luck for a mandate. The big Democratic victories of recent years were artificially inflated by how vicariously suburban voters reacted to Donald Trump. Some of them were only voting for Democrats out of necessity. Under this interpretation, here’s how we should view recent election cycles:
McAuliffe won in 2013 not because voters liked him but because they disliked Ken Cuccinelli even more. Notice that even against Cuccinelli the Democratic candidate for governor couldn’t win a majority of the vote. Yes, Democrats won the other two races that year but Northam benefited in his lieutenant governor’s race from an exceptionally weak Republican candidate, E.W. Jackson. The attorney general’s race – where Mark Herring topped Mark Obenshain by just 165 votes – was the more representative election that year. And who knows how Obenshain might have fared if he’d had a stronger candidate at the top of the ticket? If Republicans had nominated Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling that year for governor and a stronger candidate for lieutenant governor, maybe it’s possible Republicans would have won that year. After all, even while Democrats were winning (by default) statewide, those same voters expanded the Republican majority in the House to 67 seats. Voters sure didn’t seem to be in a Democratic mood that year; they were just unhappy that Republicans had veered so far right. A year later, Virginia voters came within 0.8% of retiring Mark Warner. All in all, Virginia voters seemed pretty divided.
It wasn’t until Donald Trump came along that Democrats started making big gains, driven largely by suburban voters who recoiled from Trump and were determined to punish every Republican in sight for being part of a party that produced him. The big Democratic victories in the 2017 governor’s race and 2017 House races, the 2018 Senate race and the 2019 House races didn’t have as much to do with Democrats as they did with voters being furious about Trump.
Now, in 2021, Trump is gone (or at least out of the White House), and Virginia politics are reverting to a pre-Trump normal in which elections are much more competitive. Democrats, who spent too much of 2021 trying to run on Trump, just learned that lesson the hard way.
I think there’s a lot of merit in that revisionist history, although there are some important flaws to that argument. The merit seems pretty obvious: Trump clearly sunk the Republican Party in Virginia. Without him, there’s no way that Democrats would have made those big gains in the House in 2017 (more than even party leaders had dreamed of) and there’s no way they’d have been in a position then to win back the House of Delegates in 2019. If you’re a Trump voter who doesn’t like what the Democratic General Assembly has done – legalizing cannabis, abolishing the death penalty, making it easier to move Confederate statues, allowing collective bargaining for public employees, all the rest – blame Trump. Without him, none of that would have happened because without Trump a Democratic legislature wouldn’t have happened.
The genius of Virginia Republicans in 2021 was nominating a slate of candidates who didn’t have “Trump” stamped on their foreheads. (Some House candidates did, such as Wren Williams in Patrick County and Marie March in Floyd County, but they were running in very Trump-friendly districts.) Now, whether this was genius or an accident is debatable. Virginia Republicans have never much liked primaries, always preferring party-run conventions, but the pandemic made a traditional convention impossible. That led them to their multi-site system with ranked-choice voting. We have no way of knowing whether Youngkin would have won a regular primary or a regular convention. We just know that he won the ranked-choice voting convention, which meant that Republicans passed on several candidates who were far more identified with Trump than Youngkin was, and nominated a candidate with no record whatsoever.
Republicans also got lucky in their choice of an attorney general candidate. Jason Miyares just barely beat out Chuck Smith, who ran as a full-on gun-toting Trumper and had an interesting history out of the memory of most Republicans. In 1987, Smith lived in Roanoke and briefly sought the Republican nomination for the state Senate. When party leaders objected for various reasons, Smith threatened to run as an independent and then later declared, “I intend to support the Democratic Party … and return to the party where I feel at home.” If Smith had won the nomination, which he almost did, Republicans would have been surprised to find their nominee at one time forsook the party. Given Miyares’ narrow win over Herring, it’s fair to say that the Trump-embracing Smith would not have won that election – and might have been a big enough distraction that Youngkin might not have, either. Smith would have been a juicy target for Democrats in a way that Miyares was not. Big picture: Republicans didn’t reject Trump, they just nominated candidates who effectively ignored him and ran their own campaigns – as normal, pre-Trump Republicans, save a few nods toward “election integrity.”
Now, can this Republican victory be duplicated? It’s always a mistake to try to re-fight the wars of the past – or the elections. Times change, issues change, feelings change. Republicans got very lucky this year. It may be hard to produce another electorate where rural voters punch such outsized weight. (As has been widely reported, turnout in rural areas was up far more than it was in Democratic-voting urban areas.) But Republicans did show something important: It’s possible to move past Trump. Voters looked at Youngkin, concluded he wasn’t a Trumper, and judged him on his merits, something they couldn’t do for Gillespie four years ago. Likewise they gave Republican House candidates a hearing, which turned out to be bad news for the seven Democrats who lost. Republicans would be making a mistake if they conclude from 2021 that Virginia is a Republican state again, but Democrats would be making a mistake if they conclude this was some freak alignment of the stars and they are sure to win every future election. On the contrary, this may be more of a return to something approaching normal.
Updated Dec. 1 to account for some special elections.