WASHINGTON — White women voters may have made the difference for Republicans in Virginia’s high-profile gubernatorial race Tuesday, swinging by double digits towards the GOP and giving the party a potentially winning playbook in future elections.
For some Democrats surveying the wreckage from a bad night, the 13 percentage point swing towards the GOP among white women — fueled by a 37 point shift among white women who didn’t go to college — was the number in NBC News exit polls that stood out among a sea of bad ones.
“That white non-college woman is very sobering,” said Scott Kozar, a Democratic consultant who worked on the Virginia lieutenant governor and House of Delegate races.
Democrats had attributed much of their victories in 2018 and 2020 to driving up their margins with women, helping propel the party to control of Congress by tilting key districts away from their previous Republican slant.
But that tide appears to have receded.
The startling shifts enabled Republican Glenn Youngkin to cut into Democrats’ margins in the booming Virginia suburbs and run up the score in conservative rural counties, providing the formula for GOP success in a state that has steadily trended blue since former President Barack Obama snapped a decades-long Republican winning streak in the commonwealth in 2008.
Youngkin made schools and “parents rights” the centerpiece of his campaign. And his party is already picking up the baton, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announcing Wednesday that Republicans plan to introduce a “parents bill of rights” in Congress soon.
“He put together a coalition where he did even better than Trump did with base voters and rural voters, and he improved a lot in the suburbs, where Trump was toxic,” former Virginia Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump, said on MSNBC. “Which is why he closed that gender gap to single digits, instead of Trump’s yawning gender gap.”
Youngkin’s opposition to teaching critical race theory, until recently an obscure academic field mostly taught at the graduate level, received the most attention, but Comstock said he tapped into a larger parental frustration with school closings and other issues that “just failed kids outright” during the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, not all women are parents, and not all parents sided with Youngkin. But the swing suggests a widespread erosion of support for Democrats, who won white women in Virginia in last year’s presidential contest.
“I don’t think it was about the issues, it was about something bigger about the brand,” Kozar said.
As is typical in most elections, women outnumbered men at the ballot box in Virginia 52 to 48 percent, according to the NBC News exit poll, and while women of all races sided with McAuliffe, white women broke heavily for Youngkin.
Accounting for nearly three-quarters of women voters and nearly 40 percent of the entire electorate, white women backed Youngkin 57 to 43 percent, according to NBC News exit polls — a 13 point swing compared to 2020, when white women in Virginia narrowly sided with President Joe Biden over Trump.
Compared to Biden, McAuliffe performed slightly worse among Black women and better among Latino women. Among all non-white voters, McAuliffe did 3 points better than Biden last year in Virginia, according to the exit polls.
Meanwhile, reflecting a broader national trend of partisan polarization along education lines, the 12 point gap Republicans enjoyed in 2020 among white women who didn’t go to college grew to a 49 point gulf Tuesday, with Youngkin winning the demographic 74 to 25 percent.
McAuliffe outperformed Biden among college-educated white women, but not by nearly as much, growing the Democratic performance among that demographic by only 7 percentage points.
White men have long been reliable Republican voters, but white women are more variable. If Republicans can replicate the margin they enjoyed in Virginia, it would make it difficult for Democrats to win close races across the country, given their large share of the electorate.
Many on both sides of the aisle are pointing to Youngkin’s emphasis on schools as the decisive factor in the shift.
“This is a victory for Virginia parents,” said Carrie Lukas, the vice president of the conservative group Independent Women’s Voice. “They want schools that educate, rather than indoctrinate.”
There’s little evidence critical race theory is even taught in Virginia schools, and McAuliffe and other Democrats dismissed the issue as racist and a conspiratorial dog whistle.
But Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and others now say the party needs to take the issue more seriously.
“Glenn Youngkin tapped into, in terms of concerns about education at the local level, he touched a nerve, and I think those of us on the Democratic side have to sit back and think about how we address that,” Warner reporters told reporters Wednesday.
When Youngkin ran an ad featuring a woman who said she didn’t want her kids being taught "sexually explicit" material in class, McAuliffe’s campaign focused on the fact that the woman was referring to “Beloved,” Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that portrayed the horrors of slavery. But that nuance may have been lost on many voters who were puzzled why Democrats would react so strongly against a mother concerned about her child seeing explicit material in school.
And McAulliffe for weeks dug in and defended a debate-stage gaffe when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” giving Youngkin ammunition to host a series of “Parents Matter” rallies across the commonwealth.
“The one thing we need to make sure that doesn’t happen in 2022 is that the Republican Party becomes the party of parents,” Stephanie Cutter, once a top political adviser to former President Barack Obama said on MSNBC. “We need to own that agenda.”
The NBC News exit polls showed that while the economy was the top issue for a plurality (34 percent) of white women, education was not far behind at 24 percent and most of those who selected the issue broke for Youngkin.
Overall, 84 percent of white women said they thought parents should have a say in what their child's school teaches.
And while Democrats hoped to use the real threat to Roe v. Wade to turn out women, among the 10 percent of Virginia women votes who said abortion was the most important issue for them, 51 percent voted for Youngkin.
Democrats have had difficulty explaining why white women vote Republican, with Hillary Clinton receiving blowback for saying in an interview after her 2016 election loss that white women were “under tremendous pressure from fathers and husbands and boyfriends and male employers not to vote for ‘the girl.’”
After their loss in Virginia, some progressives seemed ready to write off the entire demographic group, with one feminist activist, Mona Eltahawy, writing on Twitter that white women voters were “the footsoldiers of white supremacist patriarchy.”
Others pointed to Biden’s economic agenda as the way to reverse the gender gap.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Democrats can answer GOP messaging on education by passing laws that help mothers and families, such as child care assistance and universal pre-K.
Cornell Belcher, a former pollster for Obama, cautioned Democrats that “Republicans now see a way to energize and tribalize electorates with suburban voters, that they're absolutely going to use again in the midterms.”
He argued Democrats need an answer to the GOP’s exploitation of critical race theory that serves as a similarly effective way of energizing their voters. But what does that look like?
“I don’t know, but they can’t ignore it. They have to take it on,” Belcher said, adding that Democrats can’t sit idly by while Republicans stir up their base with rhetoric about “losing our country” and “making your kids feel bad about being white.”
"That energizes their base,” he said. "And Democrats are energizing their base by saying, what, ‘I'm going to build more roads’? It's checkers and chess.”