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Politics: What Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia win means for Democrats

McAuliffe and Youngkin are in a dead heat with one week to Virginia governor election, poll shows

  McAuliffe and Youngkin are in a dead heat with one week to Virginia governor election, poll shows Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin are tied at roughly 45% each, according to a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll released Tuesday. But roughly 5% of likely voters say they are still undecided a week before the Nov. 2 election. © Cliff Owen, AP Virginia gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe left, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, talk during the Virginia FREE Leadership Luncheon in McLean, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University Political Research Center, said the race is simply a "dead heat," and will boil down to which party can get out its voters.

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. Multiple media outlets called the race for Youngkin early Wednesday morning.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin holds up a handmade sign at a campaign rally at the Chesterfield County Airport on November 01, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia © Anna Moneymaker/Getty Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin holds up a handmade sign at a campaign rally at the Chesterfield County Airport on November 01, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia

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 points, and Joe Biden won the state by 10 points in 2020.

As early voting nears its end, McAuliffe and Youngkin campaign in decidedly different ways

  As early voting nears its end, McAuliffe and Youngkin campaign in decidedly different ways In the increasingly nationalized race to be Virginia's next governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are closing their campaigns in decidedly different ways. © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images Vice President Kamala Harris waves next to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe at the Peter G. Decker Half Moone Center in Norfolk, Virginia, on October 29, 2021.

It’s a mistake to overread the results of any one governor’s race, which 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 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 current count shows a closer race than Democrats expected there.)

Is Critical Race Theory McAuliffe's Kryptonite? Democrats' Missteps Make It Hard to Tell

  Is Critical Race Theory McAuliffe's Kryptonite? Democrats' Missteps Make It Hard to Tell It seemed the Virginia governor's contest would be a test for Republicans seeking to stoke concerns about CRT. But Democratic fumbling may define the race.It also has seemed that the race will serve as a test of whether the GOP's recent efforts to stoke concerns about critical race theory in schools could be used as a strategy to drive victories in the 2022 midterms. On the campaign trail, Republican Glenn Youngkin has attempted to channel anxieties over the issue—and other concerns among suburban school parents—to bolster support.

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, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters during a Canvass Kickoff event on November 02, 2021 in Falls Church, Virginia © Win McNamee/Getty Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters during a Canvass Kickoff event on November 02, 2021 in Falls Church, Virginia

Some of the blame for this loss surely falls with McAuliffe himself. A longtime Democratic operative and fundraiser who rose to chair the DNC 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.

Meet Glenn Youngkin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who might flip Virginia

  Meet Glenn Youngkin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who might flip Virginia Glenn Youngkin had never run for political office before he quit his job to run for governor of Virginia. He has a good shot at being the first Republican elected to statewide office in Virginia since 2009. © Provided by Washington Examiner Recent polls suggest that the Tuesday election is a toss-up between Youngkin, 54, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking a second, nonconsecutive term. The numbers are a surprising turnaround considering President Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points in 2020.

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.

Glenn Youngkin makes final pitch to be Virginia's new governor

  Glenn Youngkin makes final pitch to be Virginia's new governor Yougkin promised Virginians in Loudoun County that he would ban critical race theory teachings in schools and that parents would have power over their children's educations.Youngkin, who holds less than a one percent lead over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, took the stage Monday night in the battleground county, which has been the state's epicenter of anger regarding school curricula and policies - in particular, the teaching of critical race theory and rules regarding transgender students.

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 broader 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.

Trump says 'MAGA movement is bigger than ever'

  Trump says 'MAGA movement is bigger than ever' Trump thanked his supporters Tuesday night and said: 'Glenn will be a great governor.' The ex-president also claims his supporters remain strong and the 'MAGA movement is bigger than ever before.''I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you, he would not have been close to winning,' Trump said in a statement Tuesday night. 'The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before. Glenn will be a great governor.

What it means

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), 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 outsized attention because there are hardly any other high-profile 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 is currently closer than many Democrats expected, though, and still hasn’t been called.

But 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 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.

Glenn Youngkin won while keeping away from Donald Trump; will other Republicans do the same?

  Glenn Youngkin won while keeping away from Donald Trump; will other Republicans do the same? Expect many GOP candidates to mimic Youngkin in 2022 by embracing Trump's base and populist issues, while keeping their distance from the man himself.Or at least for some Republicans in some states.

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 midterms has been the same all year— the president’s party almost always faceplants in midterms. Since World War II, the president’s party 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 and turn things around, but it will be a tall order.

Glenn Youngkin wrote the GOP playbook to navigate the Trump factor. Can it be replicated in 2022? .
With his victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race, Glenn Youngkin wrote a new Republican playbook for keeping Donald Trump's base engaged without alienating the voters who were repelled by the former President in recent elections. © Andrew Harnik/AP Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin greets supporters at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., early Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, after he defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe. That's despite running against a rival, Democratic former Gov.

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