The Virginia governor’s office will not belong to Democrats in an upset that suggests Democrats could be in for a world of hurt in the midterm election. Republican candidate and now Governor-elect Greg Youngkin won the state with 50.9 percent of the vote, an extremely close and downright disturbing result to see in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points. His opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, had several missteps in his journey to return to office. Despite having the endorsement of current governor Ralph Northam and former President Barack Obama, McAuliffe failed to push the issues and, by extension, failed to win over the votes in a state that should have been his for the taking.
Lacking Support and The Trump Effect
While historical parallels can explain what happened here, there are also fundamental problems that activists have struggled to deal with for years: voter apathy. Since early October, McAuliffe struggled to match voting enthusiasm among his voters, with only 44 percent of his voters saying they were motivated to vote compared to Youngkin’s 50 percent. This flies in the face of the overwhelming and historic voter turnout Biden managed to secure in 2020, suggesting that Democrats, and perhaps even Biden, are not as politically strong without the Trump effect.
There is some evidence to suggest that Trump’s influence and the lacking presence of his toxic personality helped Youngkin. One poll shows that Democrats are convinced that Youngkin supports Trump too much, with Republicans saying the opposite, but among Independents were much more mixed in their view. Among independents, 46 percent said Youngkin supported Trump too much, and 41 percent said he supported the former president at just the right level. To put this another way, the attempts to make Youngkin look like a Trump stooge were, at best, minimal in their success.
Those two factors are important for a variety of reasons, but the fact that McAuliffe could not lock onto his less experienced opponent and get a sense of who his voters were supposed to see him as is a major part of why his campaign was so flaccid at the end of the campaign. When facing an opponent, it is critical to give your voters something or someone to fight for, or at the very least, give them something to support. McAuliffe’s failure to do that is partially to blame for this loss.
Biden’s Approval Rating
While it is difficult to ascertain how much Biden hurt McAuliffe’s chances and most recent presidents have seen declines in their approval ratings, as I noted before. But there is little reason to believe that Biden didn’t harm the former governor’s chances. Exit polls showed that 53 percent of Virginians disapproved of Biden’s performance as president compared to 46 percent who said they approved. A solid 90 percent of Youngkin voters also disapproved of Biden.
It isn’t too surprising that a majority of Republicans would disapprove of their opponent, but the degree to which they did, combined with the percentage of the state who dislike him despite voting him in just a year ago, speaks volumes about the influence of Biden’s presence in the election. This is especially true when you consider that Democrats have won every statewide race and four presidential elections in the state since 2009. While it is possible that Biden’s approval will recover, and as I argued before, that does not mean its current state was helpful for McAuliffe. There will be more examinations of the data, of course, but for now, it seems as though Biden lurked over the election field in ways that he probably didn’t want.
Critical Race Theory and Familial Control
This one is a bit more difficult. It would be a mistake to say that CRT was the only reason for this victory, but it is equally mistaken to ignore its role. Education and the economy were the top two issues that dominated the polls, with 24 percent of voters saying that education was their main issue. And while education is generally a vital issue for Democratic voters, the use of CRT as a cudgel changed that game. Previously, education voters favored McAuliffe, but by the end of October, Democratic fortunes soured. When faced with a campaign by Youngkin criticizing McAuliffe for opposing a bill that would allow parents to veto certain books in school, McAuliffe infamously responded, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach. The parents had the right to veto books… also take them off the shelves… I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions.” This move played into the narrative that McAuliffe and other Democrats were trying to force a certain perspective on parents and their children irrespective of their choices.
This isn’t to say CRT itself decided the election, as other states saw anti-CRT candidates lose their races. In New Hampshire, Democratic Mayor Andrew Hosmer won reelection over his staunchly anti-CRT opponent, who falsely claimed that anti-bias training in schools was an example of ‘racist’ Critical Race Theory. In Connecticut, yet another anti-CRT candidate lost in a local race. But the fact that McAullife played into the narrative that Youngkin was creating does suggest that, if given proper cultivation, anger at establishment politics can sometimes persuade voters to accept nonsensical claims about education and other policy, turning them to vote for a candidate that they otherwise would not.
They’re Just Not Into You
While it is tempting to see the Virginia elections as evidence of Biden’s unmitigated failure or the fall of Democratic political power, the candidate himself needs to be considered. Though McAuliffe was a well-rounded candidate with strong connections, he never possed the reputation or the groundswell of support that other candidates before or after him had. Nor did he ever reach a majority of the vote in his previous runs for governor. In 2013, when he won his seat, McAuliffe won with only 47.8 percent of the vote, just 2.6 points above his opponent. It is also worth mentioning that a third-party candidate on the Libertarian ticket took home 6 percent of the vote in the same year, meaning that McAuliffe never had the political strength to secure reelection in the first place. There was no popular mandate for Terry McAuliffe to return to Richmond.
While Republicans are sure to celebrate the results of their victory, albeit a close one, the questions over how effectively they will govern remain unanswered. They may gain a majority in Virginia’s legislature, but their control is far from guaranteed, nor is there is evidence to suggest it will be permanent if it exists at all. That said, Democrats’ failure to adequately deal with the issues on the ground, overemphasis on Trump, and their fundamentally bad candidate choice should serve as a warning for Democrats across the United States. Relying on traditional candidates without offering anything new and inadequately responding to culture war propaganda is a recipe for failure that Democrats can ill-afford deal with. A new strategy is necessary.