On Nov. 2, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin was declared the new governor-elect of Virginia with just over 50% of the vote. Youngkin’s victory marks a notable moment in the state’s political history, as he’ll be Virginia’s first Republican governor in over a decade. In the wake of this historic election and political polarization of the past several years, this election may set an important precedent for the tone of national politics in upcoming election cycles.
Virginia’s shift to Republican governorship comes after months of controversy surrounding various core campaign issues, one of the most contentious topics being the implementation of critical race theory (CRT) curriculums in the state’s schools. Governor-elect Youngkin ran his campaign with a strong emphasis on ‘family values,’ often referencing his support for parents in choosing what their children are taught in school. Exit polling showed higher favorability for Youngkin among voters for whom education was the most important issue. It’s clear that Youngkin’s supposed efforts on behalf of Virginia’s parents proved to be a successful strategy in winning the support of frustrated constituents.
Youngkin’s platform of education reform is reminiscent of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” that won over independents and moderates 20 years ago, but that was in an era unmarred by the divisiveness surrounding former President Donald Trump’s presidency. Now, Democrats must focus on organizing and then galvanizing their diverse coalition of voters if they want to prevent a red wave in 2022 — or even sooner.
The discourse surrounding CRT and other policies associated with liberal leadership may have worked in tandem with general frustration and resentment toward the Biden administration. Ahead of the gubernatorial election, Biden’s approval ratings dropped yet again to just over 40%. Youngkin capitalized on this public disapproval of the president, portraying himself as an outsider that could meet the needs of everyday Virginians.
Youngkin was also able to tactfully limit his association with Trump. Although Youngkin’s campaign was endorsed by Trump, Youngkin never expressed a strong opinion, neither positive nor negative, toward the former president. By walking the line between outright support and denouncement, Youngkin was able to benefit from Trump’s support without alienating any possible voters. This strategic decision suggests that Youngkin may have also solved the complex puzzle of balancing ‘Trump’s Republican Party’ and the views of more traditional conservative constituents.
Youngkin’s victory may also fuel the idea that Republicans have historically been more skilled at uniting a fractious base in comparison to Democrats, who often falter in getting progressives and moderates to agree on policy. Though there is still much uncertainty as to what the 2024 election cycle will hold, Youngkin’s success shows signs of a future Republican party without Trump’s overbearing influence.
For Democrats, Youngkin’s win is not only a loss in Virginia — which has reverted back to its swing state status — but an indication of dwindling influence nationally. Democratic Governor Phil Murphy’s close win in the blue state of New Jersey and Minneapolis progressives’ failure in replacing their police department with a public safety agency are just two other instances of recent challenges that the Democratic party has had to confront. If Youngkin’s win is any indication of Republican momentum in the formerly blue state, the party would be remiss not to capitalize on the upset leading into next year’s midterms. GOP leaders are undoubtedly looking to the 2022 U.S. House races in Virginia, where Democrats will have seven seats up for grabs.
Amidst an air of widespread relief for Democrats following the 2020 presidential election, Virginia’s gubernatorial race should serve as a wake-up call for the party’s leaders and constituents who have become comfortably apathetic about statewide and national politics. Without a resurgence of engagement and organization from Democrats, it is likely that the congressional majority, and possibly the presidency, could fall into the hands of the Republican party.
Even though the Democratic party maintains control of the executive office, it must continue to promote strong political engagement from its voters. Republicans were able to tap into the resentment and unhappiness of Virginians, energizing voters in areas where the Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe fell short. In Virginia and elsewhere, the Democratic party must deliver on its promises and motivate its base to head to the polls.