The race for governor in Virginia has dominated political headlines for months now. As Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin cut Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s lead in the polls heading into the vote Tuesday, the response was an outsize focus on the state. By the time NBC News projected Youngkin's victory early Wednesday morning, the results had already been deemed a clear bellwether for electoral politics nationwide.
Except, well, it isn’t. It’s one election among many other elections at the state and local level that maybe, perhaps, if you turn your head and squint, form a cohesive narrative. The trouble with that is that in trying to smooth out the edges into a recognizable shape, the contours of each race are lost.
In trying to smooth out the edges into a recognizable shape, the contours of each race are lost.
Virginia holds its statewide elections in national elections’ off-years. That place in the calendar makes the state an oasis for a political ecosystem that at its worst mimics a stock ticker, relentlessly tracking who’s up and who’s down. It doesn’t hurt that North Virginia is the home of many of the capital region’s finest political reporters, who constantly have one eye on Congress.
And as a former swing state turned consistently blue, where President Joe Biden won by 10 points and where a Democrat has been at the helm since 2014, the idea of McAuliffe losing has had politicos from both parties in a tizzy for weeks. A Youngkin win is a rejection of Biden, they yelled; a McAuliffe win shows that the GOP has lost the suburbs forever! Either way, in this telling the results Tuesday all but determine that Democrats will lose control of Congress in the midterms.
That makes for a good story — but too often that story is taken as a definite predetermination of the more than 500 races scheduled for a year out. And, frankly, that doesn’t make much sense to me.
Now, before anybody accuses me of trying to write off McAuliffe’s loss because the result has me somehow embarrassed, I’d be saying the same thing even if the race was a blowout victory for him. There are just too many oddities that color the Virginia race to make it the harbinger of the midterms that so many want it to be.
For starters: McAuliffe is a known figure, having sat in the governor’s mansion from 2014-2018. Virginia’s governor is barred from serving consecutive terms but allows a former executive to run again for a second term later on. That experience and familiarity was both a help and a hindrance as The Macker ran against a political newcomer who felt refreshingly normal to many voters after the Trump years.
There are just too many oddities that color the Virginia race to make it the harbinger of the midterms that so many want it to be.
At the same time, Virginia Democrats are tired after years of constant campaigning with no break. As CNN reported recently: When “Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Hala Ayala told the audience that this election was ‘truly the most important election in our lifetimes,’ there were audible groans among the assembled Democrats who heard the same less than a year ago.”
Another twist: The state’s Republicans are hoping to reclaim the state’s House of Delegates from a narrow Democratic majority, spurring down ballot enthusiasm among GOP voters. That motivator isn’t one that can map directly onto every swing state’s midterm election next year. And finally, this is a state where the polls also narrowed substantially in 2017, only to deliver a 9-point win for outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat — a bit of history that failed to repeat itself on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, nobody is using New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s likely re-election as a sign that Democrats are set to be resurgent next year. Murphy was poised on Tuesday night to snap a 44-year-long streak of Democratic governors failing to be re-elected, suffering no electoral backlash for his support of vaccine and mask mandates. And he did so while facing a moderate Republican who wanted to stay out of former President Donald Trump’s shadow, unlike Larry Elder, who failed to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in this year’s run-off election.
That said, there were a lot of variables at work in Virginia’s race that did provide teachable moments. The most prominent has been the Trump Factor: Youngkin stood out in his party for not trumpeting Trump’s endorsement at every opportunity. Instead, he walked a tightrope of trying to keep the GOP base on board while not scaring off the independents and suburban voters that abandoned Trump in droves last year.
That’s led to the former businessman refusing to appear at events where Trump’s been beamed in virtually as recently as Monday night. It also meant that McAuliffe highlighted Trump’s endorsement more than his “moderate” Republican opponent. Youngkin’s decision to keep the former president at arm’s length in public has been echoed in the lieutenant governor’s race. Winsome Sears, though a Trump loyalist and the kind of dyed-in-the-wool GOP right-wing archconservative that has been at the top of the Virginia ticket in more recent cycles, made a point to also dodge a Trump-led rally last month.
Taken together, it made for an odd reversal of the last half-decade of politics, one that tested whether the Trump brand remains toxic for voters. And it seemed to pay off for Youngkin and Sears on Tuesday, as McAuliffe’s bid to dub his opponent the newest member of the Trump family failed, and the GOP base still turned out in the numbers needed.
Meanwhile, even further down the ballot were school board races dominated by debates over transgender rights, critical race theory, and Covid masking that GOP operatives have been busy seeding. These cultural war fights, diluting bigotry to a level that’s more palatable to fearful white voters, were a major focus of Youngkin’s “parents matter” fear-mongering over what Virginians’ delicate children are being taught about race and gender in classrooms. Combine that with his less Trumpian demeanor and you have a potential playbook for Republicans to emulate in white-majority suburbs around the country.
But there are dozens of reasons that races tip one way or another in a given election, and Virginia is no exception there. Trying to pinpoint the exact causes when the official vote counts are still being processed is a mania that I truly can’t understand. After Democrats underperformed down ballot in 2020, there was a deluge of explanations from operatives, observers and officials who were sure they knew why the party had underperformed.
All of these attempts to pinpoint the answer ignore the myriad ways that demographics, turnout, geography, candidate appeals and policy mix together. Yes, America’s politics have been increasingly nationalized in the last 25 years. Yes, there are some narratives that transcend state borders. And yes, the Democrats invited these comparisons as they brought in big names like former President Barack Obama to campaign in the closing weeks of the race.
But the biannual attempt to read the tea leaves remaining in the cup after ballots had been cast in a single off-year or special election and then apply the divinations to the country writ large is a fool’s errand. Let’s learn what we can from Virginia — but not treat it like the final arbiter of America’s political future.