The victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in Virginia’s gubernatorial election earlier this month presented an unexpected blow to his opponent, former state governor Terry McAuliffe and his fellow Democrats. Youngkin appealed to Virginians’ growing concerns over inflation, education, and their wariness of the growing size of government under the Biden administration while his Democratic opponent failed to address these issues and highlight his party’s accomplishments over the past year.
McAuliffe’s campaign instead focused on portraying Youngkin as an acolyte of Trump, a strategy that failed to earn the support necessary to secure victory. McAuliffe’s defeat paints a worrying picture for the Democrats as they prepare for the 2022 midterm elections, with many analysts arguing that the party will face defeat unless it can offer a new platform addressing Americans’ most pressing concerns.
Youngkin’s victory can be understood in part as a consequence of Americans’ growing disapproval of the Biden administration. His election is a continuation of the Virginian tendency toward voting against the party represented in the White House in gubernatorial elections. In ten of the last eleven elections, Virginians have elected a governor belonging to the party opposing the president.
As Biden’s approval rating continued to fall during the Virginia campaign, Youngkin’s polls improved. Advisers to the Democratic candidate noted that as Americans’ discontent over the spread of the Delta Covid-19 variant, the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and issues on the southern border grew, support for McAuliffe waned.
While McAuliffe focused on tying Youngkin to former President Trump to dissuade Virginians from supporting him, the Republican campaign won by appealing to Virginians concerned about inflation and the implications of what some perceive as excessive levels of spending undertaken by the Biden administration. Over 60% of voters hold Biden accountable for inflation and 52% say that the government is doing too many things that should be left to the private sector.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, wrote “Mr Biden misread his narrow victory as a mandate for far-left policies… instead of addressing the issues voters are concerned about, the Democratic majority is narrowly focused on spending as much of our money as quickly as possible.” The Democratic party has drawn similar criticism from the left, with the New York Times editorial board writing shortly after McAuliffe’s defeat that the party’s preference for progressive over bipartisan policies has alienated moderate Americans and whittled down its coalition of support.
Youngkin also appealed to Virginians worried about the impact of rising cultural tensions on K-12 education. He promised to ban critical race theory (CRT), a doctrine not actually taught in Virginia schools that argues that the US was built on racism and racist institutions which continue to impact the country today. Youngkin stated in a Fox News interview earlier this year that CRT is a “political agenda to divide people and actually put people into different buckets and then pit them against one another.” While CRT is not taught in Virginian schools, some parents have become frustrated with the penetration of some of its principles into public schools.
A whistleblower submitted a post to Parents Defending Education revealing the creation of a teachers’ course in Fairfax County schools called “Antiracist Educator” this year. The course draws from tenets of CRT, providing lessons on topics including “a critique of liberalism” and “the notion that racism is not an aberration.” Democrats, however, continued to counter the assertion that CRT is taught in American schools, with former President Barack Obama characterizing parents’ frustration with CRT as “fake outrage”.
Virginian parents’ discontent with McAuliffe’s stance on education grew when the former governor stated in late September “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Support among Virginian parents for McAuliffe quickly declined after his statement, with a late October poll showing Youngkin leading his competitor by 17% among parents of K-12 children.
The Republican party’s success in Virginia reveals that it is capable of winning despite the damage former President Trump inflicted on its reputation in many moderate Americans’ eyes. By addressing concerns over inflation, the growing size of the federal government, and the state of K-12 education, Youngkin won over moderate Virginians and outperformed McAuliffe. The Democratic party’s strategy of painting its Republican opponents as Trump acolytes failed to dissuade enough Virginians from voting for Youngkin. McAuliffe’s defeat is a wake-up call for the Democrats, who will likely struggle to draw ample support in the midterms next year unless it adopts a platform addressing voters’ most pressing concerns.
Image: Bryan Alexander via Wikimedia Commons