Virginia Democrats had two years solid manning every single post on the command bridge of state government. Looks like that’s all they get for now.
The statewide winning streak that has propelled Democrats to the seats of power in Richmond in every election post-2009 smacked into a determined red wall Tuesday night.
Psyched-up Republicans unclipped Virginia’s blue badge from its lanyard and dropped it into the office shredder. The Old Dominion will wake up in 2022 with only the Senate still in the hands of Democrats, by a slim 21-19 margin.
Glenn Youngkin, a private equity executive from Northern Virginia with no political record, led a jaw-dropping GOP takeover using tactics that pundits have labeled “Trump Lite.”
Former President Donald Trump, for all his many faults, remains hugely popular with the Republican base, but his shady antics are off-putting, not just to Democrats, but to independents and even some moderate members of the GOP.
Youngkin carefully courted both sides of the intraparty divide. In the Republican primary, Youngkin talked of “election integrity,” the code words for Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Once Youngkin had secured the nomination, he acknowledged Biden’s win and avoided campaigning with Trump — while also leaning into cultural and education issues that have conservatives up in arms, including the bugaboo notion that K-12 schools teach critical race theory.
Next year, as Republicans aim to take back Congress, they’ll be looking to Youngkin’s strategy as a model.
Republicans came out of the night with historical bragging rights beyond damming and draining the blue tide. In the lieutenant governor’s race, Winsome Sears makes history as the first Black woman elected to statewide office.
Though Youngkin’s tightrope act will end at the governor’s mansion, credit, or blame, must also go to the missteps on the Democratic side. Giving Terry McAuliffe another chance at the bat earned no ovations from the stands, and polls showed that voters in his own party regarded him with ambivalence.
The essence of McAuliffe, for some, comes down to cheering on the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline while posing with representatives of a bogus Chinese company as he passes them an oversized $1.4 million check. Those concerned that McAuliffe’s presence on the flagship would be more hazard than guiding light saw those fears realized Tuesday, as Democratic control of the state went down with him.
Though former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was a risky bet for Republicans in the 2013 contest, McAuliffe barely squeaked past him, winning by 56,435 votes out of $2.24 million cast. Youngkin, more centrist (or at least more bland and less outspoken) than Cuccinelli, left no room to squeeze by.
Credit or blame also lands squarely in the pit of President Joe Biden’s slumping poll numbers. Recent polls have shown that the disastrous troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the ongoing COVID-10 pandemic crisis, rising inflation, supply chain disruptions caused by job shortages, and a Congressional agenda stalled by party infighting have combined to sour Virginia’s independents on Biden.
McAuliffe may well have seemed the safe choice during the Democratic primary, much the way Biden did in the 2020 presidential campaign. But McAuliffe wasn’t running head-to-head with Trump, much as he tried to claim that he was.
Youngkin was a more savvy campaigner, projecting a calm, business-friendly message. He continued his tightrope walking in his victory speech Tuesday, making reference to support of parental input in schools without mentioning “critical race theory.”
As an aside, there’s a grim cleverness in the way Christopher F. Rufo of the conservative Manhattan Institute redefined what critical race theory means and weaponized that meaning, ginning up the conservative base nationwide. Essentially Rufo took a very specific academic term and stretched it to encompass any kind of perceived “political correctness,” so that now an educator who dares to use a business-world buzz-phrase like “diversity, equity and inclusion” gets accused of being part of the CRT cult.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has not been much help in dealing with this issue, nor other flashpoints such as mask mandates and transgender student policies, fobbing the responsibility for dealing with these controversies off on localities. As bewildered school boards have fended off angry anti-CRT constituents month after month, Democrats have ignored the problem at their peril. McAuliffe put his foot right in the bear trap with his unfortunate debate quip that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
As for Republicans, banning something from schools that wasn’t taught there in the first place should, technically, be an easy promise to keep.
Even beyond the furor over the notion that school curricula incorporated liberal brainwashing, Virginia conservatives were hustling to put the brakes on a legislative agenda they perceived as too extreme. For good or ill, Democrats seized their chance to act on issues near and dear to them, such as marijuana legalization, abolishing the death penalty, police reform and firearm restrictions. At least in Southwest Virginia, rural conservatives took these changes as a sign Richmond legislators had lost their collective minds.
The Franklin News-Post shared an excellent example of those consequences, bearing witness as Franklin County Sheriff Bill Overton, a cautious politician who usually runs as an independent against Republican opponents, wholeheartedly endorsed Youngkin and the rest of the Republican ticket at a Rocky Mount event.
Overton told the gathered crowd that Youngkin “knows that Virginians and Americans know more about how to raise their children than the government does. And he knows for a community to be vibrant, you have to have strong law enforcement, too.”
The New Jersey governor’s race, too close to call Wednesday morning in a state Biden won by 16 points, shows that it’s not just Virginia Republicans out to turn back the Democratic agenda.
It’s practically a political tradition for the midterm elections to cut against the party that holds the presidency. If Democrats hope to stave that off, they’ll have to find ways to patch the holes Youngkin punched through their defenses.