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Republican Glenn Youngkin has won the Virginia gubernatorial election, a huge shift to the GOP in the Democratic-leaning state and a dire warning sign for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
Youngkin led Democratic former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe by 54%—46% with more than three quarters of the statewide vote counted. The Cook Political Report and Decision Desk have called the race.
Voter turnout was through the roof, especially in rural and Republican areas. But Youngkin improved over previous GOP numbers across the state, from suburban Northern Virginia and Richmond, which had swung hard to Democrats in the Trump years, to rural Southwest Virginia, to the swingy Tidewater region.
The uniformity of the shift from county to county is notable—and should alarm Democrats:
Virginia had trended strongly leftward over the past two decades. Biden carried Virginia by a 10-point margin in 2020. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam won his race by 9 points in 2017. Even as she lost the presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 points. This result suggests that Republicans are headed into the 2022 midterms with the wind at their backs as they look to erase Democrats’ narrow margins in the House and Senate and win back a bevy of swing-state governorships they lost in 2018.
Youngkin managed to distinguish himself enough from Trump to win the race. While he embraced Trump’s endorsement and dragged his feet on admitting that President Biden had won the 2020 election fair and square, Youngkin never campaigned with Trump and spent millions on advertising painting himself as a hoops-shooting, reasonable suburban dad—a striking personality contrast with the former president.
Youngkin wasn’t the only GOP victor of the night, either: Republicans were on pace to flip the lieutenant governorship and attorney general offices, handing them a clean sweep of Virginia’s statewide offices, and looked to be on track to win back the Virginia statehouse as well.
Youngkin campaigned hard against Critical Race Theory, which isn’t actually taught in Virginia’s schools but nevertheless became a major flashpoint in the race. Underlying the fight over education was the coronavirus pandemic. Many Northern Virginia schools remained remote for longer than schools in other parts of the country, infuriating some parents who were desperate to get their kids back in the classroom. Youngkin ran ads specifically on that issue as well.
But McAuliffe can’t pin his loss entirely on the national environment. His debate gaffe where he said “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” was weaponized by Youngkin, who pummeled the former governor with ads highlighting the remark.
The national environment, and Youngkin’s skills as a candidate, combined for a sweeping victory: Youngkin improved on Trump’s margins in nearly every corner of the state.
Loudoun County, a suburban and exurban county that became the central flashpoint of the school wars, is emblematic of the swing. Hillary Clinton won Loudoun by 17 points in 2016, Northam carried it by 20 in 2017, and Joe Biden carried it by a lopsided 25-point margin in 2020. On Tuesday, McAuliffe won it by just 10 points.
Virginia has traditionally been a good barometer of where things may head in the following year’s midterm elections. Republicans’ win there in 2009 presaged the GOP Tea Party wave of 2010, and Northam’s big win four years ago showed the blue wave was building.
The commonwealth has long broken against the party that holds the White House: McAuliffe’s narrow 2013 victory is the only time in the past half-century that the candidate of the same party as the president won the governorship. But even then, it was a bad sign for Democrats. McAuliffe’s narrow win that year against a weak candidate foreshadowed a major Republican wave election in 2014.
Democrats might be feeling some ominous deja vu after Tuesday’s results.