Republicans’ dominating victory in Virginia shows voters care about policy – even in grossly exaggerated forms – and not Trump

Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at his election night party in Chantilly, Va., on November 3, 2021. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
  • Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia ended 12 years of statewide electoral losses for the GOP.
  • By focusing on education and the economy, Youngkin, a political newcomer, set the narrative of the race.
  • Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe was unable to counter Youngkin’s messaging despite his record in Richmond.

Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican since 2009 to win a Virginia gubernatorial election when he bested former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday night. But the results were no surprise – and should set off alarm bells for Democrats going into the 2022 midterm elections.

It wasn’t just Youngkin who came out on top. Democrats faced a statewide rout, with Republican Winsome Sears defeating Democrat Hala Ayala in the lieutenant governor’s election, Republican challenger Jason Miyares knocking out two-term Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, and Democrats on track to potentially lose their majority in the Virginia House of Delegates.

President Joe Biden’s historically abysmal approval ratings and the broader enthusiasm favoring the party out of power put the wind at Youngkin’s back – and certainly didn’t help McAuliffe’s chances either.

The results indicate that, if anything, Biden was more a drag on McAuliffe than former President Donald Trump was on Youngkin. As of Wednesday morning, with an estimated 99% of the vote reporting, Youngkin had won 51% of the vote statewide, a nearly 7-point improvement over Trump’s vote share in 2020 while McAuliffe earned 49% of the vote, a 5-point underperformance of Biden’s share.

But this race wasn’t entirely decided by the national environment. It was also a case of how much candidates’ strategic choices, not to mention actual issues, matter.

In his advertising towards the end of the campaign, McAuliffe chose to go all-in on making the race a referendum on Trump. The focus on the former president came, to a certain extent, at the expense of highlighting McAuliffe’s own relatively recent record as governor or on the progressive policy accomplishments of the Democratic-controlled Virginia House of Delegates.

While assuming full control of Virginia government for the first time in a generation, state Democrats overhauled voting in the Commonwealth by instituting early voting and automatic voter registration for residents receiving a driver’s license, while also loosening restrictions on abortion, abolishing the death penalty, and approving a series of gun control measures.

However, McAuliffe didn’t campaign heavily on building on these gains, which may have ramped up higher levels of engagement among younger and progressive voters.

Youngkin, on the other hand, put just enough distance between himself and Trump so as not to alienate diehard MAGA voters in Southwest Virginia while also improving on the former president’s performance in the suburbs and exurbs as McAuliffe underperformed Biden in those key counties.

Virginia voters
Voters in Midlothian, Va., hold their ballots as they vote in the Virginia gubernatorial election on November 2, 2021. Midlothian is located in Chesterfield County, a key Richmond suburb that supported Republican Glenn Youngkin over Terry McAuliffe. AP Photo/Steve Helber

Suburban erosion and a disciplined GOP message hurt Democrats

In Loudoun County, an affluent jurisdiction in northern Virginia, which became the nexus for the Republican effort to push concerns about public education, Democrats had steadily strengthened their electoral performance over the last decade.

Biden won Loudoun by 25 percentage points just last November, picking up 61.5% of the vote compared to Trump’s 36.5%. But Youngkin was able to markedly improve on the former president’s poor performance, trailing McAuliffe by a smaller 10.5% margin (55%-44.5%).

In Chesterfield County, a Richmond suburb that had long been a Republican stronghold and where Biden won last fall by roughly 6 percentage points (52%-46%), Youngkin reverted the jurisdiction back to its GOP roots, winning by 5 percentage points (52%-47%).

There was a similar story across the Commonwealth, where Democrats ceded many of the electoral gains that fueled their meteoric ascent in the last decade, and many of these areas, filled with small businesses and military families, were deeply concerned about the state of the economy.

In defense-heavy Virginia Beach, where Republicans have dominated local politics for decades, Democrats recently found success on the presidential and local levels. In 2017 and 2019, the party captured several critical seats in the House of Delegates that the GOP had long controlled, and Biden last year won the conservative-leaning city 52%-46%.

However, Youngkin defeated McAuliffe in Virginia Beach by a 54%-45% margin, and several competitive House races in the city have not been called yet.

Unlike McAuliffe, Youngkin chose to make concrete policy issues like education a key focus of his campaign. Ultimately, it was a winning message because Youngkin and his campaign were able to not only mobilize voters around education, but also successfully control the narrative defining the entire race.

It didn’t matter at the end of the day that critical race theory isn’t taught in Virginia public schools or that his campaign put out an ad featuring a woman who lobbied to have “Beloved” removed from her son’s school’s AP English curriculum.

McAuliffe’s main problem by the end of the election – other than being on the wrong side of an enthusiasm gap – was that the issues on which voters trusted him the most to handle, like the COVID-19 pandemic and abortion, had fallen to the wayside. Education and economy overtook those issues in importance and Youngkin had momentum there.

In early September, a Washington Post-Schar School poll of the governor’s race found that 27% of Virginia voters listed the economy as the most important issue influencing their vote, 16% named COVID-19, 15% identified education, and 11% named abortion.

But by their poll conducted in late October, 24% of voters listed education as their most important issue, followed by the economy at 23% and COVID-19 at 10%, with abortion, crime, and taxes in the single digits.

By flipping the top issues in their favor, Republicans were able to eek out victories in the end, thwarting Democrats’ political momentum.