The Associated Press reported early Wednesday morning that the 54-year-old Republican defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the high-profile, high-stakes election. Youngkin’s triumph is a huge boost for the GOP ahead of the 2022 midterms as Republicans try to determine how to win elections at a time when Trump is out of office but still clinging onto the hearts and minds of many of their voters. Bagging a blue state like Virginia is an indication it might be on the right track, to say the least.
Youngkin, a political neophyte who was a longtime private equity executive before resigning to enter the gubernatorial race, tailored his campaign around hot-button cultural issues like critical race theory, vaccine mandates, and transphobia in an effort to race bait and drum up fear among moderate suburban voters.
He also courted them by turning his back on Trump. Youngkin steered clear of the former president in the weeks leading up to the election, and even rebuffed him last week when Trump floated the idea of joining Youngkin in Virginia for a pre-election rally. “He’s not coming,” Youngkin said of Trump. “In fact, we’re campaigning as Virginians in Virginia with Virginians.”
Trump wound up calling into a “tele-rally” for Youngkin on Monday night, praising him as a “great man,” a “wonderful guy,” and also a “fantastic guy,” who wouldn’t have any trouble making Virginia the “envy of the world.” Youngkin did not appear at the event himself.
He also didn’t appear at an event intended to support his campaign last month during which attendees pledged allegiance to a flag flown on Jan. 6. Steve Bannon, who was there in person, pushed the idea that the 2020 election was stolen, as did Trump, who called into the event. Youngkin disavowed the insurrection pledge the following day, but he has struggled to disentangle himself from the election fraud conspiracy theories that helped secure him the Republican nomination earlier this year. Youngkin has since said the election was on the level and that he would have certified the results, but he’s kept on surrogates who have claimed that election — and this one — were fixed.
Trump took credit for Youngkin’s victory hours before it was called early Wednesday morning. “I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin,” he wrote in a statement. “Without you, he would not have been close to winning. The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before.”
Youngkin’s win is a big blow to Democrats, especially the party’s establishment, of which McAuliffe had been a force for decades. He’s long been considered a key fundraiser, had a stint as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and even served as Virginia’s governor from 2014-2018. His defeat on Tuesday marks only the second time a Democrat has lost a race for governor in the state in the past 20 years, and the first since 2009.
McAuliffe’s loss does not bode well for the party’s future in the state that President Biden won by over 10 percentage points last November, nor for the party’s prospects heading into the 2022 midterms. The state’s gubernatorial elections have in recent years been a precursor to midterm success, and Youngkin’s culture-warrior campaign — which, as Greg Sargent illustrated in The Washington Post on Tuesday, was carried out in lockstep with Fox News — could serve as a blueprint for Republicans as they try to win back Congress, and potentially the White House in 2024.
Democrats, meanwhile, will have to decide how much the defeat is due to McAuliffe, who doesn’t exactly inspire passion, and how much is the result of a broader rebuke of the party’s Biden-era direction. The fact that Phil Murphy barely eked out a win over Republican Jack Ciattarelli to hold his seat as governor of heavily Democratic New Jersey seems to indicate the latter.
The party is currently engaged in a tug of war over whether they’re too ambitious in the legislation they’re trying to pass or not ambitious enough, and Tuesday’s loss is unlikely to change the minds of either progressives or centrists. It does, however, heighten the urgency for finding a solution, as Democrats now have to reckon with how exactly they let a reliable governorship slip through their fingers at a time when they held the levers of national power.
Tuesday night’s flop bears a depressing resemblance to 2009’s Virginia governor’s race, when — in the first high-profile election under President Obama — Republican candidate Bob McDonnell trounced a Democratic candidate. Democratic enthusiasm had dimmed after as the new president’s ambitious agenda got bogged down in Congress, and Republicans were animated by a series of faux controversies and anti-Obama race-baiting. A year later, Democrats lost the House in a historic wipeout.