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Editorial: Of governors, grocery tax and what 'the rest of Virginia' wants

No Car Tax!

In 1998, Gov. Jim Gilmore signed into law the car-tax rollback.

Stakeholders from many quarters are doing their best to get their minds around the changes that the incoming configuration of state government will bring — and what it meant that these changes were even set in motion.

With an aim toward illuminating some of those mysteries, political analyst Bob Holsworth — who has led commissions in the administrations of previous Democratic Gov. Mark Warner and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell — posed a complex, interesting question to a virtual room full of journalists earlier this month.

Referring back to Terry McAuliffe’s run as the Democratic candidate for governor in 2013, when he eaked out a win against hardcore social conservative (and science skeptic) Ken Cuccinelli, Holsworth floated this what-if, condensed here for clarity: “If I had told you before the election that Terry McAuliffe would more than double his margin in Loudoun County, that he would add eight points to his margin in Fairfax County, that he would add to his margin in Prince William County, that he would add to his margin in Henrico County and that he would halve his deficit in Chesterfield County from eight points to four points — if I told you all of that was going to happen, how many of you would have placed your theoretical bets on Glenn Youngkin?”

He raised that question at a Virginia Press Association event to debunk a frequent hot take from the pundit class that Youngkin’s victory resulted from high-income Northern Virginia suburbanites shifting back to the Republican Party once the natural repellent of Donald Trump no longer factored in.

As Holsworth pointed out, “Ken Cuccinelli in a three-way race got a higher percentage of the vote in Fairfax County, Loudoun County and Prince William County than Glenn Youngkin did four years later.”

A proud Southwest Virginian might take umbrage at Holsworth’s term “RoVa,” which did not mean “Roanoke, Virginia” but “the rest of Virginia,” i.e., every place not “NoVa” or Hampton Roads or Richmond-centric — but in RoVa, Holsworth said, “The Democrats were wiped out.”

In rural communities like Southwest and Southside Virginia, Holsworth said, “It was hard to believe there were any more Republican votes left to get in these areas. Glenn Youngkin found them.”

Conventional wisdom has been that high voter turnout favors Democrats, but Virginia’s election suggested otherwise. As Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., put it — albeit in the context of trying to convince Republican colleagues to loosen voting restrictions nationwide instead of clamping down and setting more limits: “We saw an increase in voter participation that went up 25% in 2021 over 2017. That increased voter participation actually helped elect a Republican, Gov.-elect Youngkin.”

Despite the attention generated by the loud protests against the supposed teaching of “critical race theory” in Virginia’s public schools, and Youngkin’s courting of that unrest without explicitly repeating the claim, the whole CRT flap probably wasn’t all that important to Youngkin’s victory, Holsworth asserted.

More likely, he said, it was “the disaster that remote learning was for many parents throughout the commonwealth.” Statewide, the one demographic that gave Youngkin significantly more support than they gave Donald Trump turned out to be white women without college degrees, who bore the brunt of the pandemic, both in terms of losing their jobs and having to struggle with the stress and mess of virtual learning, made much worse if they lived in areas with adequate internet access.

“All of that was taken out on the Democrats,” Holsworth said.

Holsworth noted that McDonnell, the last successful Republican candidate for governor prior to Youngkin, was a social conservative who campaigned by reframing himself as a business conservative, whereas Youngkin essentially reversed that formula as he ran.

Youngkin’s lack of public service, which without doubt helped him in the election, renders him a political enigma. Though the social conservatives of Southwest and Southside Virginia boosted Youngkin into office, to the degree the governor-elect has given any hint as to what his agenda will be, he’s indicated that business concerns like reducing taxes and regulations will be his priority.

With half the General Assembly still controlled by Democrats, he’s only going to be able to do so much. Even deregulation will involve negotiating with boards appointed by his predecessors, with members that have terms that don’t automatically expire when Youngkin assumes office.

Demanding the resignations of all these appointees — as he has pledged he will do with the scandal-tainted Virginia Parole Board — creates its own sort of headache for a newly minted governor.

Reports that Youngkin has been reaching out to Democratic lawmakers prior to taking office might indicate that he’s more interested in bipartisan dealmaking than carrying the banner of a culture warrior. He has announced a “transition steering committee” that includes McDonnell and fellow former Republican governors George Allen, Jim Gilmore and, from across the aisle, Doug Wilder.

In a curious twist, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam appears either to be trying to assist Youngkin’s cause or steal his thunder. On Dec. 14, Northam proposed eliminating the state’s portion of the grocery tax, the thing Youngkin has vowed to get rid of altogether. The timing is … intriguing … because Northam talked this idea up during his own election campaign in 2017 but never pursued it.

For those with longer political memories, Youngkin’s pledge recalls Jim Gilmore’s “No Car Tax” slogan of 1997. Downsizing the car tax cut deeply into funds for local governments, as Youngkin’s and now Northam’s idea for the grocery tax would, and required the state to provide the money to local governments some other way. Of note, we still have a car tax AND the state still reimburses local governments for having reduced it. In other words, it didn’t go as planned.

It doesn’t take a working crystal ball or a study of the leaves left in the tea cup to deduce that the same thing just might happen this time around.

As a postscript, courtesy of Holsworth, a monumental sea change, not much on the radar, will be coming courtesy of the new attorney general.

Mark Herring, brought down with the rest of the 2021 Democratic ticket, used his eight years in office to push the progressive agenda. Let the liberal and the woke take note: this will come to a screeching halt under Jason Miyares.

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