In late September, when I was working on a piece about how Democrats might want to consider that they could lose the gubernatorial race in a state President Joe Biden won by 10 points last year, Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, summed up the blasé attitude of Democrats in the state: “Oh, we’ll win in the end, we always do, it’s a blue state.”
Sabato saw this overconfidence as a warning sign. He was right.
Republican Glenn Youngkin, a private equity magnate turned friendly sweater-vest campaign dad, defeated former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday, leading by nearly 3 points when networks called the race. It’s Republicans’ first gubernatorial win in Virginia since 2009. This now makes it 11 out of the last 12 governor’s races in the state that the party not controlling the White House has won. (The lone exception was McAuliffe in 2013, who pulled off a squeaker against ideologue Ken Cuccinelli. So at least he has that.)
While there will be plenty of miscalculations for Democrats to pick over in the coming days and weeks, it’s that last statistic, about the out-party traditionally winning the Virginia gubernatorial race, that provides the architecture of McAuliffe’s loss.
This pattern is not a coincidence. One year after an election, the base voters of the party that just lost a presidential race are going to be pissed off and wake up each morning dreaming of the next time they can vote against the president’s party. (There’s a critical addendum to this in Virginia’s case, too: Republicans had lost every statewide race for nearly a decade in a state they used to dominate. Each loss irritated them more! They were ready to go this time.) The president’s party’s base, meanwhile, can’t match that level of enthusiasm. The president, whom everyone was so excited to elect the previous year, takes ownership of national problems and sags, or plummets, from their postelection high. This is also the basic structure of why the president’s party typically loses ground in midterm elections the following year. (Just wait!)
In this case, Democrats’ problems accumulated over the summer with a messy withdrawal from Afghanistan; the delta variant, which brought a new, post-vaccine wave of the pandemic; and inflation and supply chain kinks that turned voters’ opinions of the economy sharply negative. As I pointed out earlier this week, an NBC News national poll from this weekend showed that only 22 percent of voters felt the country was on the right track, compared with 71 percent who said it was on the wrong track. Joe Biden’s average approval rating is 42 percent. I’m not sure which closely contested election Democrats expect to win when that’s the case.
Terry McAuliffe, a lifelong Democratic operative, is not a generational political talent. But Washington also didn’t give McAuliffe much material to work with. As I write, we are on month… 3… 4… 17?… of congressional Democrats saying they’ll pass a monumental pair of bills any day now. This week? Eh, might have to push it to next week. How does your December look? This meant McAuliffe had little to nothing to point toward as examples of what Democrats can get done if you just give them the chance.
So, McAuliffe basically ran on Trump. His opposition to Youngkin largely hinged on tying him to Trump. This will be treated in the punditry as a catastrophic mistake and extrapolated into broader conclusions about the futility of even bothering to mention Trump from now on. But such conclusions would be news to the Youngkin campaign, which worked strenuously, and oftentimes awkwardly, to keep its distance from Trump (who was eager to embrace Youngkin) and to keep General Election Youngkin sequestered from Primary Election Youngkin, when the latter said an awful lot of nice things about Trump and the need to ensure “election integrity.”
Trump may not, however, have been as effective a foil in a gubernatorial race, in which pressing local issues can rise above the usual Washington garbage.
Local issues like schools.
You really do have to think of the issue as just “schools.” Republicans in Virginia and Washington recognized the anguish schooling brought parents during the pandemic and worked backward from there. This was a key way by which they changed the subject from Trump and started to woo back some of the voters, particularly in suburbs, who’d drifted toward Democrats under Trump.
First the issue was virtual learning, and Republicans made themselves the party of “get our kids back to school.” Once schools reopened in person, the frustration among parents didn’t go away in an instant, which left a great opening for the national Republican Party’s latest sellable crisis: that “critical race theory” was invading children’s curricula and teaching white children to hate themselves. That, at least, worked to keep the Republican base in a necessary froth.
McAuliffe’s biggest misstep of the campaign may have come in a late September debate when he said the words “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” It took McAuliffe some time to recognize that he needed to put out an ad defending himself. But the line, which you would hear approximately 20 times during every commercial break in the D.C. media market for the month of October, did real damage to McAuliffe’s standing on education, traditionally one of Democrats’ strongest issues. A September Washington Post poll found McAuliffe leading among voters who said education was their most important issue by 33 points. In the final Post poll, Youngkin was leading among those voters by 9—and there were more voters saying education was their most important issue overall.
It’s impossible to know which combination of these factors finally did Terry McAuliffe in. Republicans had success in reeling back in voters in counties like Chesterfield, in the Richmond suburbs. Biden won it by nearly 7 points last year; Youngkin was leading McAuliffe by 12 points when last I checked. And Democrats were taken just enough off their pace in their breadbasket—the Northern Virginia suburbs—to seal it. Democrat Ralph Northam won Fairfax County by 37 points in 2017. Biden won it by 42 points. McAuliffe, with nearly all votes reported, is leading by 29. Biden won Loudoun County by 25 points. This year, as it became a flashpoint for some of the most ferocious fighting over schools, McAuliffe’s lead is in the low double digits. It’s just an across-the-board shift away from the dominant position Democrats built in the state during the Trump years.
You can say that’s because McAuliffe was a particularly bad candidate (I don’t think he was) or because Youngkin ran such a stellar campaign (it was stellar enough to win!). But it’s also not out of line with what you’d expect in a Virginia gubernatorial election the year after Democrats took control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting when it happens—and the closeness of the New Jersey governor’s race, still undecided as of now, provides a second, bonus bout of election night agony that Democrats didn’t see coming. But it will sting a lot more one year from now, with far more offices at stake, if Democrats don’t find a way to turn things around.