Suburban voters responded to GOP culture war pitch in Virginia governor's race, and showed all politics are now national

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<span class="caption">Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin greets supporters at an election night party.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="https://newsroom.ap.org/detail/Election%202021%20Virginia%20Governor/c6998cce8cbd40ff8cd0062a8df63640?Query=Virginia%20governor&mediaType=photo&sortBy=arrivaldatetime:desc&dateRange=Anytime&totalCount=3264&currentItemNo=7" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:AP Photo/Andrew Harnik">AP Photo/Andrew Harnik</a></span>
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin greets supporters at an election night party. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

With the 2022 midterm elections less than a year away, the stunning victory of political newcomer Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race demonstrated an effective GOP strategy that appeals to crucial suburban voters alienated by Donald Trump while maintaining support from the former president’s die-hard supporters.

Youngkin’s campaign and subsequent victory over Democratic former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched Virginia into the national limelight. The election was a referendum on not only Trump’s influence within the GOP but also the Biden administration’s inability to deliver so far on presidential campaign promises.

In previous elections in Virginia, local politics were just that – local. But over the past decade, Virginia turned from a reliable red state in presidential elections to a reliable blue state. Starting with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Virginia has voted Democratic in presidential contests, including for Hillary Clinton in her unsuccessful bid in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. Before the election in 2008, Virginians voted Republican in presidential elections for the previous 40 years.

The recent blue wave placed Virginia at the heart of national politics – and made it a GOP target. By using national culture wars, and specifically GOP outrage over how race issues are taught in public schools, Youngkin took aim at suburban Virginia voters and sliced off enough to become governor.

In addition to winning the governor’s race, the Virginia GOP saw Winsome Sears become the first Black woman to become lieutenant governor. And Republican Jason Miyares took the state attorney general’s office. Republicans also won enough seats in the House of Delegates to tie the Democrats, although a few races are still being decided. The Virginia Senate remains in Democratic control.

The blue wave in Virginia is now an open question.

A woman leads a young child through a voting site in Virginia.
A woman leads a young child through a voting site in Virginia.

Suburban GOP gains

Though Biden won the suburbs overwhelmingly in 2020,, the Youngkin campaign won a significant portion this year by, in part, focusing on the potential that critical race theory could be taught at the K-12 level. It’s not, but that didn’t stop the spread of misinformation.

Usually reserved for graduate schools, critical race theory is a field of intellectual inquiry that demonstrates the legal codification of racism in America. Instead of responding to Youngkin with the truth, McAuliffe alienated suburban voters further by declaring during a debate with Youngkin that “parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach.”

It was a major blunder and became the subject of relentless campaign advertisements by Youngkin in the days leading up the Nov. 2 election. In Fairfax County – a suburban Democratic stronghold near Washington, D.C., comprising nearly 13.5% of the state’s overall vote – Youngkin’s campaign against critical race theory improved GOP results by 2.6 percentage points from the 2020 presidential election.

Youngkin’s strategy was also helped by McAuliffe’s inept efforts to paint the millionaire political newcomer as a Trump acolyte.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia governor who lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin, hugs his wife, Dorothy, on election night.
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia governor who lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin, hugs his wife, Dorothy, on election night.

The Trump factor

Polls showed the race as a statistical dead heat leading into Election Day. Those poll numbers held steady on election night.

In majority Republican counties in Virginia, for instance, such as Bedford, Frederick, Roanoke and Hanover, Trump’s margin of victory in 2020 was between 37% and 60%. Youngkin maintained those numbers within 1 percentage point.

Youngkin was able to maintain the Trump base without embracing Trump publicly. GOP hopefuls who fear alienating moderate suburban Republicans are now able to follow Youngkin’s lead by downplaying their association with Trump while secretly enjoying the enthusiasm he generates among his base.

As Virginia goes?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “bellwether” as “one that takes the lead or initiative” or “an indicator of trends.” That’s the role Virginia could now be playing on the national political scene.

While the sitting president’s party usually loses congressional seats during the midterms, emboldened Republicans strengthened by the results in Virginia now expect both chambers to not only return to GOP control but also present Biden with the additional challenge of a divided government. Both might culminate in a 2024 presidential election campaign that could very well see Trump at the top of the ticket as the Republican nominee once more.

Such enthusiasm – and public distancing from Trump – might be the difference between winning and losing in an upcoming election across the country. It might also create a new version of an old political standard: All politics are now national.

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