On its own, a Republican victory in Virginia’s race for governor would have been enough to lift GOP spirits and put Democrats on edge heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
But the fact that Glenn Youngkin won by keeping former President Donald Trump at a cautious distance, even as Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats presented them as one and the same, also gives party operatives confidence that a post-Trump playbook can work.
In Virginia, Youngkin took a nationalized issue — critical race theory, an academic term that conservative media and activists have used to stoke fears about school curriculum that focuses on institutional racism — and localized it. Parental involvement in education became the core theme of Youngkin’s campaign, especially after a televised debate where McAuliffe asserted that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach.
According to NBC News exit polls, 84 percent of voters Tuesday said parents should have at least some say. And nearly a quarter of respondents rated education as the most important issue facing Virginia — placing the issue behind concerns about the economy, but elevating it as a rallying cause for 2022.
“That type of energy? You can't just flip a switch and do it,” said Zack Roday, a Republican strategist who is based in Richmond, Virginia, and has worked for former House Speaker Paul Ryan and former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “It's a clear kind of projection of values.”
“My advice to House and Senate candidates that I'm working with is to almost be like a mayor,” Roday added. “I don't believe this will only be relevant for gubernatorial races.”
The results also are a blow to President Joe Biden and the coalition he built last year, at a time when Democrats’ legislative agenda keeps hitting speed bumps in Congress. In another warning sign for Democrats ahead of the midterms, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was locked in a dead heat with Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli. Ciattarelli, like Youngkin, dodged questions about Trump while trying to focus on local concerns.
Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points, and until Tuesday a Republican hadn’t won a statewide race there since 2009. The president’s sagging poll numbers may not have rubbed off on McAuliffe — in the exit polls, only 29 percent said opposition to Biden was a factor in their vote. But Democrats are left to wonder if the gains they made last year with white women and in the suburbs are disappearing.
Exit polls also found that where Biden narrowly beat out Trump with white Virginia women in 2020, 50 percent to 49 percent, Youngkin won white women 57 percent to 43 percent over McAuliffe. And the party’s standing in rural areas remains bleak.
“Just when Democrats think we've hit the bottom on rural voters, [Republicans] keep getting more blood out of the stone,” said Scott Kozar, a media consultant who worked with Virginia’s Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Hala Ayala, and the party's leader in the Virginia House of Delegates. “This thing metastasized from a Trump phenomenon to just a rural phenomenon.”
Trump, much to McAuliffe’s delight, tried to insert himself into the race. He enthusiastically endorsed Youngkin and teased the possibility of a rally in the closing days before ultimately settling for a telephone rally Monday night.
But NBC News exit polling found that voters disliked McAuliffe (52 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion of him) about as much as they disliked Trump (53 percent), while 53 percent viewed Youngkin favorably. For all of their efforts — including a visit from former President Barack Obama, who reduced Youngkin to a Trump clone in a fleece — Democrats could not turn Trump into a galvanizing villain, or at least not one hated enough to punish the GOP candidate for governor.
“There's no Trump 2.0,” Roday said. “It doesn’t stick.”
Trump, before NBC News projected the race for Youngkin, appeared to disagree.
“It is looking like Terry McAuliffe's campaign against a certain person named ‘Trump’ has very much helped Glenn Youngkin,” the former president said in an emailed statement. “All McAuliffe did was talk Trump, Trump, Trump and he lost!”
Virginia’s gubernatorial elections come in the odd-numbered years after a presidential election and are often viewed as a referendum on the party in the White House and a measure of the political climate heading into the midterms. Governors are barred by state law from seeking a second consecutive term. McAuliffe, who held the job from 2014 through 2018, won the Democratic primary after arguing that he was best suited to fend off Republicans.
Tuesday’s results in Virginia are the “clearest and most concrete indicator at the ballot box that the GOP has the wind at its back heading into 2022,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican media consultant. “And if the specter of a guilt-by-association-to-Trump attack can't help Democrats hold on to power in a state they’ve become accustomed to winning by big margins for well over a decade, then it’s unlikely to work in a large congressional and small Senate map battlefield.”
Youngkin showed no interest in campaigning alongside Trump and criticized right-wing activists who at a rally for Virginia Republicans pledged allegiance to a flag they said was present when Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But Youngkin also made “election integrity” — a winking phrase to those who falsely believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump — a significant talking point in his bid for the Republican nomination.
In the race’s final days, Youngkin released an ad that called attention to McAuliffe’s past vetoes of legislation that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of reading assignments that included sexually explicit content. The book at the center of the debate, “Beloved,” by the celebrated Black author Toni Morrison, recounted the horrors of slavery. McAuliffe accused Youngkin of Trump-style politics and “racist dog whistles.”
But Democrats are second-guessing his heavy reliance on the anti-Trump message and warning that their candidates must make a more positive case for themselves.
“I don't necessarily think the Trump message alone is enough,” said Karundi Williams, executive director of re:power, a progressive organization that fights for people of color to be represented in politics and government. “Folks are done with the status quo with the Democrats. They want to see the agenda. They want to see the results of progressive policies being passed. And I think Democrats could lean into some of that even more in the messaging.”
One Democratic National Committee member who represents a Midwest state and requested anonymity to speak candidly said Trump, who is already endorsing candidates in 2022 Republican primaries, has proven to be less of a factor in general elections.
“I think that a lot of people voted just to get Trump out [in 2020] and then went down the rest of their ballot and voted Republican,” the DNC member said. “So if a quote-unquote, ‘safe,’ quote-unquote, ‘normal’ Republican is running at the top of the ticket, do suburban voters who really care about family, financial matters and stuff like that just revert back to a generic Republican?”
The DNC member also believed McAuliffe’s debate remark — that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach — cost him.
“Maybe it was taken out of context, and I think that's what McAuliffe has said, but it's a tough line to deliver to middle-of-the-road parents, because they're sitting there and they're like, ‘I want to know what my kid's learning in school,’” the member added. “But it's like Republicans have created a perfect trap for all that.”
Some Democrats warned against overanalyzing the results in one state, at a time when Biden’s poll numbers are down but could improve if Democrats in Congress pass his infrastructure and safety net legislation.
“Youngkin hit schools and local stuff really hard,” said Rich Luchette, a Democratic communications strategist who has worked on congressional and state races. “And that could create a different electorate than a super-nationalized race that’s run during the midterms. I don't think it's time for anyone to panic, but it's certainly a moment for Democrats to recognize what is at stake next November.”