For the first time in 12 years, Virginia will have a Republican governor.
Glenn Youngkin, a businessman and first-time candidate for office, defeated Democrat and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday, promising to set off a panic among Democrats a year ahead of the midterm elections.
Youngkin’s upset victory in a state President Joe Biden won by 10 points just a year ago will almost certainly have national implications, as Democrats try to beat historical trends and hold onto power in Washington in 2022. And while the results of one “off year” election are ripe to be overanalyzed, the Republican win in an increasingly reliable blue state could point to real trouble ahead for Democrats.
In his first bid for governor during President Barack Obama’s second term, McAuliffe won despite tough headwinds for Democrats. But this time around, McAuliffe seemed to face even stronger forces, with Biden’s approval rating flagging and Virginia voters upset about school closures due to COVID-19 and the culture war issue du jour: “Critical Race Theory.”
Youngkin successfully made education and a parent’s right to be involved in their child’s schooling a central issue of the governor’s race and weaponized white anxiety over teaching how racism has affected U.S. history. McAuliffe’s campaign, meanwhile, was slow to react.
Instead, McAuliffe repeatedly tried to cast Youngkin as an avatar of former President Donald Trump dressed in “a fleece vest and khakis.”
In one last-ditch attempt to tie Youngkin to Trump on Monday evening, McAuliffe implied his opponent was closing out the campaign with the former president in the state, when in fact Trump just called into a campaign event that Youngkin didn’t even attend.
“Guess how Glenn Youngkin is finishing his campaign?” McAuliffe asked. “He is doing an event with Donald Trump here in Virginia.”
As for Biden, he largely stayed away from the race, with McAuliffe almost entirely ceasing to mention the president after the August tumult in Afghanistan. Biden joined McAuliffe twice on the campaign trail—once in July and then again at the end of October—making the familiar case that Youngkin was just Trump in different clothes.
Some Virginia voters agreed, as McAuliffe was able to mobilize Democratic voters in many of the bluest strongholds that have propelled Democrats to victories in the state. But many other voters weren’t convinced, as Youngkin appeared to turn voters in areas where Democrats have had decisive advantages, like Loudon County, which has become ground-zero for local battles over Critical Race Theory.
In Loudon, Youngkin appears to have made significant in-roads, with McAuliffe barely winning a county that went for current Democratic governor Ralph Northam by 20 points. The same could be said for suburban counties like Henrico—just outside of Richmond—where McAuliffe won by about 10 percent when Northam won by 22 percent, and Brunswick County, where McAuliffe got 52 percent of the vote when Northam got 57 percent in 2017.
But Youngkin also ran up the score in rural areas, turning out the same voters who supported Trump in 2020 while tamping down McAuliffe’s lead in many of those suburban counties that had turned Virginia blue.
Youngkin appeared to do it by mainly sticking to state issues, nodding to the Trump voters where he could but also letting Biden’s unpopularity dictate the mood of the race. And while parts of his platform were certainly Trump-adjacent—particularly those dealing with “election integrity” issues and the removal of mask and vaccination requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19—he mainly kept Trump at arm’s length.
Still, he was careful to balance keeping MAGA voters in the fold without alienating Republicans who had turned their backs on Trump. It’s a tactic that Republicans will likely replicate around the country—and one Democrats clearly fear.
In a memo to donors on Monday, the Republican Governor Association made it clear that no matter what happened on election night, the fact that they made Democrats play defense in blue states like Virginia and New Jersey were signs of Biden’s drag on Democrats going into 2022 and brighter days ahead for the GOP.
“Both Glenn Youngkin and Jack Ciattarelli have proved that with strong candidates and an effective message we can compete anywhere,” Dave Rexrode, RGA’s executive director wrote in the memo. “This is an important reminder as we head into 2022.”