Now that the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race is in the rearview mirror, the country gets to zoom in on the carcass of candidate Terry McAuliffe being picked clean by all manner of scavengers. The progenitor of enthusiasm gaps and misspeaks, the former governor has bemoaned being strapped to an unpopular president undone by the circular firing squad of congressional Democrats. Though the Beltway Democratic factions posed their own dangers, McAuliffe ultimately ended up being eviscerated by fickle, suburban, white culture warriorsand his own themeless campaign.
So focused was McAuliffe on the threat of Donald Trump that he never developed an effective offense against the nonthreatening-appearing Glenn Youngkin, who skillfully distanced himself from a Republican Party that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization. A millionaire several times over, Youngkin convinced voters that he was, as Barack Obama memorably called him, a regular old hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy.
Youngkin might become all that if he fashions himself a Republican of the Charlie Baker of Massachusetts or Larry Hogan of Maryland variety. Both have served two terms in office, constrained by Democratic lawmakers and other statewide Democratic officeholders to govern in a rather centrist mode. Youngkin will have more room to maneuver than theyve had. Hell go to Richmond with a GOP majority in the House of Delegates. (The state Senate is 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans; the next state Senate election is in 2023.) Hell be backed by a Republican lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, the first African American woman ever elected to a statewide office, and a Republican attorney general, Jason Miyares, the first Latino to be elected statewide in Virginia.
Alternatively, theres the Mitt Romney playbook. As he headed for the exits from the Massachusetts governors office in 2006, Romney dropped any pretense of being reasonable and started playing to the national Republican cheap seats with ever more conservative positions as he positioned himself for his 2008 presidential run. Romney, however, did not have Donald Trump to contend with, as Youngkin did.
So focused was McAuliffe on the threat of Donald Trump that he never developed an effective offense against the nonthreatening-appearing Glenn Youngkin.
The incoming governors campaign was a skillful balancing act of giving just enough to the Republicans base voters while counting on them to realize he had to avoid certain far-right Republican themes that would spell his defeat. They accepted his distancing from Trump as a brilliant electoral feint because Youngkin bought into select aspects of the Trump agenda like election integrity, while refusing to stump the state proclaiming that Trump actually won the 2020 presidential contest. They understood his refusal to make public comments about abortion to avoid antagonizing independents.
But Youngkin cant avoid kissing the ring any longer. Either the new governor will be on board with enacting the Republican playbookcurbing voting rights and abortion rights, dialing back marijuana liberalization, scrapping the minimum wage increases, bringing back the death penalty, or questioning state contributions to WMATA, the regional transit authority serving the Washington metro areaor he will somehow withstand the Trumpist agenda, as Baker and Hogan have done.
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Virginias election not only marked a shift in power but also signaled the end of some Democratic strategic assumptions. McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats were presumed to be the beneficiaries of a high-turnout race by dint of the steady growth of the populous, largely Democratic Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington.
But the higher Republican voter turnout in the states rural southwestern areas swamped the turnout in Northern Virginia, where Democratic support declined. In suburban Loudoun County, where Republicans ran on the scandal of teaching critical race theory to children, even though this law school topic isnt taught in K-12 public schools, McAuliffe won by a bare ten percentage points. In the last gubernatorial election, four years ago, Democrat Ralph Northam crushed GOP nominee Ed Gillespie by 20 percentage points in the county.
Statewide, Northam won by nearly nine percentage points over Gillespie. In the swing region of Virginia Beach, Northam beat Gillespie by five percentage points. This week, McAuliffe lost by more than eight.
Youngkin juiced Republican Ed Gillespies vote totals by a significant margin, according to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, clearly increasing turnout in rural areas like the Shenandoah Valley county of Augusta. By contrast, turnout this year did not improve over the 2017 numbers in Democratic strongholds like Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia.
Virginias election not only marked a shift in power but also signaled the end of some Democratic strategic assumptions.
As in many elections, Black and youth voters failed to show up at the polls this year. Older white people most certainly did. In House District 63, which encompasses the southeastern city of Petersburg, a historically Black city that is seeing increases in white residents, a white, Republican woman, Kim Taylor, is on a path to beat Lashrecse Aird, an African American Democratic delegate who steered such important policing reforms as ending no-knock warrants and choke holds through the legislature. The GOP flipped House District 83, which includes the cities of Norfolk (with a population that is 41 percent Black) and Virginia Beach, the states largest municipality (20 percent Black), after one term in Democratic hands.
No matter who [the Democrats] were going to nominate, they were still going to run into the issue of Joe Bidens being an unpopular president, says Charles Chaz Nuttycombe, president of CNalysis, a political forecasting, mapping, and news site. McAuliffe was their best bet, but that doesnt mean that he was a good bet from the get-go.
Forward-looking agendas and diverse candidates are more likely to appeal to voters of color and younger people than white male Clinton-era retreads running on past achievements and the specter of Trump. Three African American candidates of color, two of them women, were bested by McAuliffe in the Democratic primary; we wont know how relatively unknown Democratic gubernatorial candidates of color would have fared statewide in Virginia this year. Still, Virginia, remains one of only two states that have elected African American governors.
With a rout in Virginia and an unexpectedly close governors race in New Jersey, the 2022 midterm campaign is off to the worst possible start for the Democrats. Although Virginia Democrats have delivered on wages, worker health protections, and more, these victories may now be endangered in part because McAuliffe failed to hammer home these achievements during his campaign. If theyre to survive and prevail in 2022, Democrats must embrace the values they stand for, as they did in 2018 when they ran on health care rather than the scourge of Trump. Democrats are still nominally in control of Congress after Tuesdays debacle, but Republicans are favored to regain the majority, particularly if the Democrats cant get past an intraparty gridlock whose ideological contours stump the vast majority of pandemic-weary voters looking for solutions to their profound economic and social problems.
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