Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s closely watched governor’s race on Tuesday, dealing a blow to U.S. President Joe Biden and Democrats’ hopes to keep control of Congress in next year’s elections.
Youngkin was projected to win the race, according to television networks, including NBC and CNN. The results highlighted a stunning collapse by McAuliffe, a former governor and Democratic party chairman who led in the polls throughout the summer in a state that Biden won by 10 percentage points over former President Donald Trump just last year.
A political newcomer and former co-CEO of Carlyle Group Inc., Youngkin successfully used Trump’s playbook of focusing on culture-war attacks in the vast, rural parts of Virginia. But in the booming suburbs, Youngkin distanced himself from the former president.
McAuliffe’s summertime lead evaporated along with Biden’s approval ratings as the president struggled to pass a tax-and-spending plan, oversaw a messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and took blame for supply-chain disruptions, fanning inflation. He failed to benefit from appearances late in the campaign by a flood of prominent Democrats, including Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
During the campaign, Republicans urged their voters to use the Virginia contest to deliver a rebuke of the Biden presidency. At a news conference in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier Tuesday, before polls closed in Virginia, Biden waded into the race, wrongly predicting a McAuliffe win but also seeking to distance the eventual outcome from the protracted fight over his economic agenda.
"I don’t believe, and I’ve not seen any evidence, that whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I’ve got my agenda passed or not, is going to have any real impact on winning or losing,” Biden said after attending the United Nations climate summit. "Even if we had passed my agenda, I wouldn’t claim we won because Biden’s agenda passed.”
While McAuliffe tried to tie Youngkin to Trump in order to energize Democratic turnout, it was his own party leader’s unpopularity that weighed on his campaign. McAuliffe campaigned alongside Biden a week before the election, just three weeks after characterizing the president and his party as a headwind.
The race drew national attention as both sides sought clues about next year’s elections when control of Congress is on the line. History is already not on Democrats’ side, the party that controls the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections.
Youngkin sought to harness the energy of Trump supporters by raising concerns over "election integrity” and waiting until he had secured the nomination to agree that Biden had won the 2020 election. Youngkin’s campaign sold red baseball caps that mimicked Trump’s signature ones, while the candidate said that Trump "represents so much of why I’m running.”
Yet Youngkin’s appeal to suburban independents could be a preview of Republican campaigns up and down the ballot next year, as the party uses cultural issues as a way excite voters even when the former president is not on the ballot.
Democrats control the House by just five seats, and the 50-50 Senate only with Harris’s tiebreaking vote.
Virginia’s gubernatorial election is often watched as a referendum on a president’s first year, since it’s one of the few significant offices up for grabs the year after presidential elections.
But Virginia also tends to punish the party in the White House. In the last 12 Virginia gubernatorial elections, the president’s party has won only once, by McAulliffe in 2013.
"I do think that America’s watching Virginia,” Youngkin told Fox News last week, "because this statement we’re about to make in Virginia will reverberate across the country.”
Youngkin, who began his fleece-vested campaign on a bread-and-butter platform of economic issues, lagged in the polls for most of the campaign. But the tenor, and momentum, of the race changed when McAuliffe said in a September debate that he didn’t think "parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The Republican seized the moment, running ads centered on McAuliffe’s veto of a bill to give parents the ability to opt their children out of reading books with sexually explicit material. But the issue also resonated with parents upset about mask mandates, how race and racism are taught in schools and a Northern Virginia school system’s alleged coverup of sexual assault.
Running in a state that Trump lost, resoundingly, Youngkin kept the former president off stage as he sought to win back some of the suburban voters who moved toward Democrats in recent years with positive ads talking about taxes and education. Trump did, however, hold a virtual rally for Youngkin on Monday, and endorsed Youngkin on at least seven separate occasions.
McAuliffe raised $57.1 million for the race. But Youngkin had $57.7 million to spend, thanks in part to a $20 million personal loan to his campaign. The money made it the most expensive race in the state according to the nonpartisan, nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.
Virginia had voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections, the last six Senate races and four of the last five gubernatorial races. Biden’s 10-point margin of victory in Virginia was the best for any Democratic presidential candidate since 1944.
Republican strategist Tucker Martin said that Youngkin benefited from a favorable environment, with Trump out of office and a Democratic president with low approval ratings. He said Youngkin did a good job introducing himself to independent voters while holding his own party together.
But the school issue also helped Youngkin change the subject from less popular Republican positions, like the controversial Texas abortion law or whether he would welcome Afghan refugees to the state.
As those issues faded by the final weeks of the campaign, Youngkin closed the gap in the polls.
"At the very end, a number of things broke his way,” Martin said.
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