Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia's high-profile election Tuesday for governor, NBC News projected, flipping control of a state that President Joe Biden won handily just a year ago.
Potentially even more concerning for Democrats, the race in New Jersey remained too close to call, even though Gov. Phil Murphy had been expected to cruise to re-election. “We’re sorry tonight couldn’t yet be the celebration we wanted it to be," he told supporters.
The results there and in other states holding off-year elections sent a warning shot to Democrats, suggesting that trouble may be brewing ahead of next year's midterm elections.
"This is the spirit of Virginia coming together like never before," Youngkin told supporters well after midnight, joking breakfast would soon be served. "For too long, we've been expected to shelve our dreams, to shelve our hope, to settle for low expectations. We will not be a commonwealth of low expectations. We'll be a commonwealth of high expectations."
McAuliffe congratulated Youngkin in a statement Wednesday morning conceding defeat.
"While last night we came up short, I am proud that we spent this campaign fighting for the values we so deeply believe in," he said, thanking his family and supporters.
Virginia will also get its first woman of color lieutenant governor, with NBC News projecting victory for Republican Winsome Sears, a former Marine born in Jamaica.
Youngkin, a former private equity executive and political newcomer, campaigned on a promise to unite the factions of the Republican Party and drove a message focused on the economy and education. He kept just enough distance from former President Donald Trump while trying to keep his base engaged.
McAuliffe, meanwhile, was weighed down by his party's post-Trump political fatigue, along with Biden's sinking poll numbers and gridlocked agenda in Washington, but ran a campaign that included damaging gaffes and, critics say, was overly reliant on trying to tie Youngkin to Trump.
Virginia, which always elects a new governor one year after presidential races, has long been seen as a political bellwether and both parties were anxiously watching as results poured in from across the commonwealth, eager for clues about the political landscape that will inform their upcoming campaigns.
The GOP victory in Virginia, powered by robust turnout in conservative rural counties, improved support in the suburbs, and a message focused on the economy and alleged anti-white bias in school curriculum, will likely serve as a blueprint for Republicans looking to recapture the House and the Senate next year.
“It’s time to hit the panic button, because the base is not motivated," Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher said, calling the loss "catastrophic" for Democrats.
In Virginia, white women swung back toward the GOP by 15 percentage points compared to 2020, while Black turnout was down in some key places.
'A wake-up call'
Turnout will be key in next year's election and Virginia's results suggest the Republican base is more engaged than the Democratic one, as is often the case for the party out of power in Washington.
“Youngkin’s victory in Virginia should serve as a wake-up call to Democrats everywhere that an epic wave is on the way," said John Ashbrook, a Republican strategist who works on Senate races and is close to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. "Voters are clearly dissatisfied with the direction our country is headed and they’re prepared to exercise their right to change it.”
McAuliffe was looking to buck history, since his state almost always elects a governor of the opposite party as the sitting president, but history won. Democrats, too, will be looking to buck history next year, since the opposition party almost always comes roaring back in a new president's first midterms, but they'll need to look elsewhere for hope to overcome that headwind now.
“There is nothing more perilous for either political party right now than a base that … isn’t buying into the threat of what can happen if the other party comes into power,” Nick Everhart, a Republican media consultant, said. “Tonight, clearly Democrats weren’t buying the Youngkin-is-a-Trump-proxy scare tactic, and without a base believing the threat, the losses can and will quickly pile up.”
The state was Democrats' to lose. No Republican had won statewide since 2009. Biden won by 10 percentage points last November. And outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who is prohibited by the state Constitution from running for a second term, won by 9 percentage points in 2017. Democrats won control of the state Legislature for the first time in decades two years ago and pushed through an expansion of early voting rules that some analysts predicted would help the party turn out its base.
Even as New Jersey remained too close to call, New York City provided one bright spot for Democrats, as voters there elected Eric Adams the city's new mayor, according to NBC News.
Two special congressional elections in Ohio resulted in keeping the seats under the same party control. In the Cleveland area district, NBC News projected Democrat Shontel Brown won. And Republican Mike Carey will keep Ohio's 15th Congressional District in GOP control.
Education, taxes and Covid-19
NBC News exit polls found the economy was the top issue for Virginia voters — they split roughly evenly on which candidate they trusted more to handle the issue — followed by education, taxes, Covid and abortion, in that order.
Youngkin made education the centerpiece of his campaign, capitalizing on parental frustration with school closures and a McAuliffe gaffe in the final debate when he said, "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
The race was stoked by conservative alarmism about critical race theory, an until-recently obscure academic discipline mostly taught in universities. Republicans say the issue could be central in future campaigns across the country.
Trump has loomed large over the Virginia race, with McAuliffe looking to tie his opponent to the divisive former president, who lost the state by 10 percentage points in 2020. The NBC News exit poll found that 54 percent of voters said they have an unfavorable opinion of Trump, compared to 41 percent who had a positive view of him.
While McAuliffe voters were almost unanimously negative on the former president, only about three-quarters (73 percent) of Youngkin voters had a favorable opinion of Trump and 19 percent had a negative view of him.
"Being anti-Trump is not going to be enough. Democrats have to show what they're for," former Virginia Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello said, adding that the party can't just ignore hot-button issues like the critical race theory debate. "If anyone on the Democratic side thought these culture wars were going to go away without Trump, that needs to be re-evaluated."
Meanwhile, about half of voters said that Biden was not a factor in their vote for governor, according to the NBC News exit poll, but only 43 percent approved of the way he is doing his job, while a slight majority (56 percent) disapproved. Twenty-eight percent said one reason for their vote for governor was to express opposition to Biden, while 20 percent said it was to express support for the president.