CHANTILLY, Va. — Republican Glenn Youngkin won Virginia’s election for governor Tuesday night, a massive victory for the GOP after more than a decade of political losses in the state, and an indication of significant discontent with President Biden and momentum for the Republican Party nationwide ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, in a state that Biden won by 10 points just one year ago, and that current Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, won by 9 points four years ago. Youngkin was able to win back enough moderate Republicans and independents in the suburbs outside Washington, D.C., around Richmond, and in the Virginia Beach and Norfolk area. He did so by keeping his distance from former President Donald Trump without alienating those in the pro-Trump Republican grass roots.
The result has huge national implications. Republicans appear on track to retake control of the House of Representatives a year from now, and possibly the U.S. Senate, just as a Democratic win in Virginia in 2017 foreshadowed a historic victory for the party in the 2018 midterms. That means the clock is now ticking for Democrats on Capitol Hill, to make use of their likely limited time in power.
It will be seen this week how it affects negotiations in Congress over the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $1.75 trillion budget reconciliation legislation. The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection now also knows that it will likely have to wrap up its work by the end of 2022, in anticipation that Republicans will disband the panel once they retake power.
Youngkin’s win was the culmination of a final month in which it was clear that the former private equity CEO was closing strong. The race was close in public polling all summer and into the fall, and kept getting closer. Then in late September, McAuliffe hand-wrapped a political gift to Youngkin when he was explaining why he vetoed a bill as governor that he felt would have turned the public school curriculum process into a chaotic mess.
“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during the second and final debate between the two candidates.
A Youngkin aide told Yahoo News that he watched the moment unfold on TV, handed his young child to his wife and immediately began cutting video of the comment to turn it into a 30-second ad. Youngkin seized on the mistake to portray McAuliffe as stiff-arming parents from having input into what their children were learning. And this fed into an already nascent movement of conservative parent groups that had protested remote learning during the 2020 school year, and had this year refocused their activism in fighting mask mandates and lessons about structural racism in schools.
Youngkin campaigned heavily on education issues, but there were other forces at play. Biden’s approval rating has crumbled in recent months amid ongoing economic problems such as inflation, labor shortages, supply chain disruptions and high gas prices.
There is also the ongoing pandemic, which was until recently a winning issue for Democrats due to their support of stricter mitigation measures. A Washington Post-Schar School poll released last week showed only 1 in 10 voters said COVID-19 was their most important issue, but McAuliffe was campaigning heavily on this issue early in the fall.
Over the final month of the campaign, Youngkin gained even more momentum from a controversy in the Loudoun County school system, an affluent area about 40 minutes west of Washington, D.C., full of upper-income and highly educated professionals. Such voters had trended Democratic in recent years, and Biden won the county by 25 points. Northam won Loudoun by 20 points four years ago. But Youngkin narrowed that margin to around 10 points while ringing up massive margins of victory in rural counties.
In Loudoun County, some conservative parents objected to a policy allowing students to use the bathroom of their choice based on gender identity, and requiring teachers to use pronouns of a student’s choice if they identified as transgender or gender-fluid. Those objections dovetailed with the lessons on structural racism, which conservatives labeled as critical race theory.
School board members in Loudoun County felt threatened by increasingly aggressive behavior by protesters at their meetings, and by a flood of profane threats of violence sent to them over email and on social media. Conversely, some parents felt as if the school board was not listening to their input.
And then in early October a parent who had been arrested in July at a Loudoun school board meeting went on Fox News to say that his daughter had been sexually assaulted last spring in a public school girls’ bathroom by a boy wearing a skirt, who was then placed in a different school and had then assaulted a second girl.
Conservative news outlets ran with the idea that a sexual predator had abused an open bathroom policy — which was not in place yet — and said it was an example of misguided liberal policies implemented by imperious bureaucrats, before it emerged that the story was more complex than it seemed.
Nonetheless, Youngkin accused the Loudoun school board of a cover-up and called for an investigation, and had no reservations in stating that the incident was going to help him do better politically in Northern Virginia.
“This is actually turning Loudoun County our direction, but not just Loudoun County: all of Northern Virginia. You watch: We’re going to do better in Northern Virginia than any Republican’s done in a long time, and we might just win Loudoun County,” Youngkin said on Fox News.
Youngkin didn’t win Loudoun, but he cut deeply into Democratic margins in key Northern Virginia counties.
The final piece of Youngkin’s victory was his ability to retain the support of Trump voters while winning back Republicans in Virginia who were repulsed by Trump.
Youngkin won some of the most rural parts of the state by much larger margins than the Republican nominee in 2017, winning between 70 and even 90 percent of the vote in some places, much like Trump did in 2020.
McAuliffe tried to tie Youngkin to Trump every chance he got, but Youngkin came off as more of a country club conservative in the mold of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, all the way down to Youngkin’s trademark fleece vest.
At the same time, Youngkin made several overtures to those who still believe the former president’s lies about the 2020 election, and stoked grassroots anger and fear by emphasizing the threats to their children in the school system. And in the end, Republicans of all stripes were united by a desire to overlook their differences — for now — in pursuit of a victory.
Youngkin’s victory in blue Virginia will likely offer a playbook for Republicans in battleground districts across the country next year. And McAuliffe’s defeat is a signal to Democrats that, with Trump off the ballot, they’ll need to find new ways to compete in an increasingly difficult political environment.
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