Charles Lipson

How Glenn Youngkin beat the Democrats in Virginia

How Glenn Youngkin beat the Democrats in Virginia
Glenn Youngkin (Photo: Getty)
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When a Republican wins in a reliably Democratic state, it’s big news. That’s exactly what happened in Virginia, where newcomer Glenn Youngkin defeated former governor Terry McAuliffe. The Republican won even though McAuliffe had a well-oiled political machine and high name recognition, and was campaigning in a state Joe Biden won by ten points only a year ago. All those advantages were for nought. The Commonwealth will have a Republican governor for the first time in over a decade. It is likely Republicans will win the other two state-wide races for the lieutenant governor and attorney general and could win the House of Delegates, which had been under firm Democratic control.

For Democrats, fright night stretched beyond Virginia into New Jersey, where the incumbent Democratic governor is struggling to keep his position. The race is still too close to call, but the Republican is ahead with 87 per cent of all the votes counted.

Since Democrats easily carried both states in the last presidential and gubernatorial races, these contests must send a shiver through the party. The Virginia race was particularly important. To understand its implications for 2022, we need to understand how Youngkin won.

The key was independent voters, especially the suburban voters who rejected Trump in 2020. Youngkin persuaded many of those voters, as Trump could not. The vote also shows Virginians are none too pleased with the performance of the Democrats, who control both state and national governments.

McAuliffe’s loss shows his party cannot recapture those disaffected voters by constantly asserting every opponent is a Trump wannabe or white supremacist. They tried that with Youngkin, and it didn’t work. Instead, what Democrats have to do is put break free of the party’s far-left and put forward a moderate agenda, not only in Congress but in executive nominations, bureaucratic regulations, and presidential orders. Most of all, they have to deliver effective results on the ground. They will be held accountable if they don’t, as the Virginia and New Jersey elections show. So far, on a national level Democrats have delivered only failure: inflation, onerous mandates, empty store shelves, racially-divisive school lessons, and a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those are fierce headwinds for local candidates.

These failures are mostly self-inflicted. The White House let Congressional progressives deny them a vital win by blocking a stand-alone House vote on the infrastructure bill, which has bipartisan support. That obstruction is led by Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (chair of the Progressive Caucus), and the Squad (led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), followed by another 20 or so representatives. They refused to back the infrastructure bill unless they also won approval for a multi-trillion social-spending bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi sided with the progressives and held up the infrastructure bill, despite her promises to moderate Democrats to hold a vote in late September.

It was a costly mistake. Both the infrastructure and social-spending bills are stuck, and so are the Democrats. Since Democrats control both the legislative and executive branches, voters hold them responsible. And they are not happy. Not at all.

Amid that discontent, it’s clear Terry McAuliffe’s made a fundamental mistake in ‘nationalising’ the gubernatorial election. Not a good idea when your national brand is tarnished and voters are energised by local issues, such as school curricula.

Republicans can learn from Youngkin’s shrewd strategy. It has wider application. To win in ‘purple’ states and congressional districts, Republican candidates have to show they are independent of Trump without alienating the former president’s large and enthusiastic base. That’s tricky, and Trump makes it trickier because he wants to play a major role in these local races, including primary contests. Doing so keeps him in the headlines, retains his dominant position in the party, and positions him for 2024. Youngkin’s response was to endorse Trump’s policies, repeatedly, without drawing too close to Trump himself. Smart.

Who takes the fall for the Virginia loss? Publicly, the Democrats will say what the losing party says after most defeats, ‘We had great issues but a bad candidate.’ Actually, McAuliffe wasn’t a bad candidate, though he couldn’t generate much enthusiasm, especially among black voters. He was a standard-issue, centre-left career politician, with lots of miles on the odometer. He was the last of the old Clinton gang still standing, and it is striking that he didn’t invite Bill or Hillary to help out. Their absence tells you how unpopular they are, even in Democratic states. Still, he invited almost every other prominent Democrat to join him on the campaign trail. It’s hard to know their net effect, but the downside is that their presence nationalised the local race just as voters were fleeing the Biden administration.

McAuliffe’s biggest mistake was framing the race as ‘Terry McAuliffe versus Donald Trump,’ which required him to paint Youngkin as a Trumpkin. When he initially adopted that strategy several months ago, it must have seemed like a good idea. After all, Virginia has become increasingly Democratic, suburban voters didn’t like Trump, and the former president’s active role in the Georgia Senate runoffs had proved a useful foil for Democrats.

Unfortunately for McAuliffe, that strategy turned into a double-barrelled mistake. First, Youngkin is a far cry from Trump, and voters knew it. Democrats spent millions trying to convince voters he was Trump’s mini-me. They failed. Although Trump endorsed Youngkin, the Virginia Republican managed to keep his distance without alienating the former president’s ardent supporters. Crucially, Youngkin managed to keep Trump and other national Republicans away from Virginia before the election. McAuliffe never recognised his strategy was failing. He stuck with it till the end. The bitter end.

For Republicans, the Virginia and Georgia races send a powerful message about Trump’s future role. Outside of Deep Red states, where Republicans are already sure to win, Trump’s prominence poses a serious political risk. Yes, he motivates Republicans, but he also motivates Democrats and alienates many independents. In Virginia, the only candidate mentioning Donald Trump was the Democrat. McAuliffe’s miscalculation was thinking voters would buy his claim that Youngkin was little more than a Trump surrogate.

McAuliffe’s obsession with Trump was costly in two other ways. First, it ‘nationalised’ the Virginia race just as the national party was plummeting with independent voters. It was those voters who carried Biden to victory. They’ve turned sharply against him after seeing the dismal results of his presidency. Fewer than one in three independents now supports Biden. Less than 40 per cent think he is competent.

Second, McAuliffe’s focus on a national candidate who was not running left local issues to Youngkin, who grabbed them with gusto. Voters know that a governors’ main responsibility lies with these local issues, such as state taxes, vaccine mandates, and public education. Those are especially important this year because parents are furious about schools’ indoctrinating children with Critical Race Theory and other propaganda. That’s true across the country, and its epicentre is Loudon County, Virginia.

McAuliffe stepped into this fragrant cow patty by saying that teachers, not parents, should control what children learn. The party elite in Washington poured salt into this self-inflected wound by endorsing an over-the-top memorandum that linked angry parents to domestic terrorists. That memorandum was written by the National School Board Association in conjunction with the Biden White House and was passed on to the Department of Justice. Attorney General Merrick Garland effectively endorsed it, without mentioning ‘terrorism,’ and told US Attorneys around the country to get busy investigating these parents.

It was a grotesque overreach, and Republicans pounced. At a Senate hearing, Republicans directed withering criticism at Garland, who stuck to his untenable position, even after the School Board Association apologised. This on-going controversy hurt McAuliffe because it kept K-12 education on the front page and positioned him and his party against concerned parents. The education/indoctrination issue will continue to hurt Democrats unless they can disentangle themselves from their unpopular positions.

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. By that measure, November 2022 is a very long way away. Still, the outcome in Virginia and the neck-and-neck finish in New Jersey will cast a lingering shadow over the next 52 weeks. For Democrats, that shadow is a scary one.

Written byCharles Lipson

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the programme on International Politics, Economics, and Security.