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What Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia win means for Democrats

The midterms are still a year away, but this is one ominous sign among several for the party.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin holds up a handmade sign at a campaign rally at the Chesterfield County Airport on November 1, 2021, in Richmond, Virginia.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

After a string of election victories in Virginia, Democrats thought the state had turned blue, but Republican Glenn Youngkin has won this year’s governor’s contest, defeating former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and delivering the state back into the GOP’s hands. Media outlets called the race for Youngkin early Wednesday morning.

The final margin isn’t yet clear, but no matter what, it represents a major swing of Virginia voters toward Republicans that will strike fear into Democrats’ hearts ahead of next year’s midterm elections. In 2017, Democrats won the governor’s race by 9 percentage points, and Joe Biden won the state by 10 points in the 2020 presidential election.

It’s a mistake to read too closely the results of any one governor’s race; these races are affected by national partisan trends but aren’t as closely linked to them as presidential and congressional races. Voters in solid red states Louisiana and Kentucky are still willing to elect Democratic governors, while voters in solid blue states Massachusetts and Vermont have in recent years chosen Republicans.

The specific candidates and circumstances in the state can matter a great deal here. In Virginia, local issues like the state of the school system got much of the candidates’ focus, and McAuliffe, who only narrowly won the governor’s office in 2013, has never been the most appealing figure.

But it would also be a mistake to totally dismiss the Virginia outcome as a one-off. The election’s issues may have been framed in local terms, but some of them — the economy, frustration with schools’ handling of the pandemic, and safety — apply all over the country. (New Jersey’s governor’s race hasn’t yet been called, but the count as of early Wednesday shows a closer race than Democrats expected there.)

The Virginia results also fit into a longtime pattern: The incumbent president’s party has lost 11 of the past 12 Virginia governor’s races. That isn’t just a coincidence. It fits a long-running national pattern of backlash against the president’s party in the midterms.

The president’s party almost always loses seats in the House of Representatives during midterm elections, and they usually lose ground in governor’s races, on net, too. Virginia’s contest, coming one year beforehand, is essentially an early midterm election. Youngkin’s win doesn’t guarantee that Democrats are headed for disaster next year, but it’s certainly consistent with that scenario.

Youngkin capitalized on dissatisfaction with the status quo

Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters on November 2, 2021, in Falls Church, Virginia.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Some of the blame for this loss surely falls with McAuliffe himself. A longtime Democratic operative and fundraiser who rose to lead the Democratic National Committee due to his close ties to the Clinton family, he had never held elected office before he squeaked into Virginia’s governorship in 2013, defeating a staunchly conservative candidate by 2.6 percentage points.

McAuliffe then spent much of his term at odds with Virginia’s GOP-controlled legislature, and couldn’t run for reelection in 2017 because Virginia’s governors aren’t permitted to serve two consecutive terms. That year, his lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, won the office by a solid 9 points.

Northam’s bigger margin was to a large extent due to anti-Trump energy, but Northam’s political profile was also more appealing in certain ways — he’s a lifelong Virginian, while McAuliffe is a New York transplant. Northam had been an Army medical officer and hadn’t spent decades as a political operative. Still, by 2021 it was Northam who was term-limited, and McAuliffe stepped back in for another run.

Republicans, meanwhile, had taken defeat after defeat in Virginia — they’d lost four of the past five governor races, and their one winning candidate, Bob McDonnell, was soon disgraced due to scandal. They saw both US Senate seats slip away, and they lost the state legislature in 2019 before Trump lost to Biden by 10 points there in 2020.

This year, though, the GOP undercut far-right and extremist candidates by choosing its governor’s race through a convention with ranked-choice voting rather than a statewide primary. Wealthy former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin emerged as the consensus choice, fending off candidates who were more closely tied to Trump’s base.

Many on the right and in the national media have framed Youngkin’s attacks on the purported use of “critical race theory” in Virginia’s public school system as crucial to his success. It isn’t so clear that was what made the difference, though, since conservative candidates focusing on that issue in local races in New Hampshire and Connecticut lost.

And while Youngkin used the specter of critical race theory to appeal to the base, his TV ads aimed at swing voters had a wider focus. In those, Youngkin conveyed concern about the state of the economy and the state’s education system more broadly. He falsely claimed McAuliffe planned to raise taxes by over $5,000 per family, and argued that the state’s public schools were increasingly poorly run and unsafe.

Meanwhile, Youngkin played a careful game with Trump — he was careful not to alienate Trump’s supporters but also tried to avoid too close an association with the unpopular former president.

Though McAuliffe is not technically the incumbent, he was framed as such. McAuliffe’s status as the former governor and Democrats’ current control of the federal government and Virginia’s state government allowed Youngkin to run essentially an anti-incumbent campaign, capitalizing on voters’ dissatisfaction with the status quo.

What the governor’s race means for national Democrats

Youngkin’s win is a surprise, in part, because of the state’s recent blue lean and the fact that he only recently took the lead in polls. In historical context, though, it isn’t so unusual — the incumbent president’s party has now lost 11 of the past 12 governor’s elections in Virginia. (The only candidate to defy the trend was McAuliffe himself, who won in 2013.)

The result certainly looks grim for Democrats, but its importance can be overstated. If Vermont (Biden +36 percentage points), Massachusetts (Biden +33), and Maryland (Biden +33) can elect Republican governors, and Kentucky (Trump +36) and Louisiana (Trump +19) can elect Democratic governors — and they all currently have themthen surely it’s not all that strange that Virginia (Biden +10) can elect a Republican. Virginia gets outsize attention because there are hardly any other high-profile state contests in the November after a presidential race.

To get a better picture of the national environment, it would be useful to have more data. Some more optimistically minded Democrats, for instance, have pointed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s margin of victory in California’s recall contest this September. That was equivalent to Newsom’s margin of victory in 2018 — a year Democrats did quite well nationally. New Jersey’s governor’s race was closer than many Democrats expected, though, and still hasn’t been called.

And three factors bode poorly for Democrats in the midterms.

One is Biden’s approval rating. After staying above 50 percent until mid-August, it has trended down ever since, and it’s now at 42.8 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll average. Basically, it’s been a rough few months for the president, with the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, the rise of the delta coronavirus variant, new worries about the economy, and struggles passing his legislative agenda. He has a year to turn things around, but his current political standing is weak.

Second, there’s Youngkin’s success in separating himself from Trump while keeping Trump’s base engaged. There have been questions about whether Trump’s coalition would stay home with the former president not on the ballot. But they came out for Youngkin — or, if you prefer, against Democrats — as Republicans’ turnout and margins in rural areas improved. Youngkin also made significant gains in the suburbs, suggesting that well-off college-educated voters who turned against the party of Trump in 2020 were now ready to vote for Republicans again.

Finally, there’s history. The main reason to expect a strong Republican performance in next year’s midterm elections has been the same all year — the president’s party almost always faceplants in midterms. Since World War II, the president’s party has lost House of Representatives seats in 17 of 19 midterm elections. Several of those losses were quite large, while the best-case scenario for the president’s party has been single-digit seat gains. Democrats’ congressional majorities are already tiny, so even a small national shift to the GOP would likely lose them the House and Senate.

A poor midterm performance wouldn’t necessarily doom Biden — most incumbent presidents do tend to improve their standing by the time their own reelection rolls around. But it would doom Democrats’ attempts to pass progressive legislation in Congress — potentially for years to come, depending on how many seats they lose. They still have a year to try to turn things around, but it could be a tall order.