When Terry McAuliffe kicked off his third gubernatorial candidacy last December, some leading Virginia Democrats had mixed emotions. On one hand, party activists believed that in Jennifer Carroll Foy and Jennifer McClellan — two female African American lawmakers in the state legislature — they had credible candidates waiting in the wings to make history. The worry, which turned out to be accurate, was that the presence of a former governor with a famous fundraising prowess would squeeze them out.
At the same time, party elders figured that McAuliffe’s candidacy would prevent the worst-case scenario: namely, that Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who was accused of forcing himself sexually on two women, would somehow win the Democratic primary. So Democrats consoled themselves. “Terry” had been a popular governor the first time around, they told themselves, and was always an energetic campaigner.
“Certainly, he comes into the race in a very formidable position,” veteran Virginia political scholar Bob Holsworth said at the time. “He’s a popular former governor. He has tons of resources. And he loves to campaign. At the same time, the open question in this campaign is whether he is the person for the moment.”
The answer turned out to be no. On Tuesday, after a rolling election that lasted two full months, none of those assets was enough. McAuliffe lost a close election to Republican neophyte Glenn Youngkin. The tally, with 94% of the vote counted, is 50.7% to 48.6%. Meanwhile, in a potentially shocking upset in New Jersey, Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli holds a 1,200-vote edge over incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy with 97% of the total counted. If Ciattarelli holds on for victory, the result will defy the pre-election polling — and leave Democrats stunned and Republicans counting the days until the 2022 midterms.
In Virginia, a large and diverse state, a close election hinges on many factors. Here are seven.
Reason 1: McAuliffe’s previous tenure in office wasn’t an advantage. Because Old Dominion governors cannot succeed themselves, McAuliffe was hampered from running on his record in the traditional way, i.e., boasting how well the state’s economy is doing, for instance, because someone else currently occupies the governor’s mansion. At the same time, McAuliffe was an old familiar warhorse who ran in 2009 (when he lost the primary) and 2013 (when he won the general election), and who was a top Clinton fundraiser and foot soldier and Democratic Party leader for decades. By contrast, Glenn Youngkin was a fresh face in a year in which the electorate in Virginia, as elsewhere, is in a sour and restive mood and incumbency itself — as Gov. Murphy may have learned in New Jersey — is its own liability.
Also, McAuliffe’s tenure in Richmond seems like a long time ago in U.S. politics, even though it really wasn’t. Since he left office, Americans have endured a lethal and disruptive pandemic, the turbulence of the Donald Trump years, and a spike in the culture wars. And the Virginia campaign was sucked into the vortex of all of it.
Reason 2: Terry McAuliffe rarely said why he wanted to be governor again. Did he want to be in a position to run for president in 2024, a goal he hinted at in 2018? Was he bored? Is he simply addicted to competitive politics? On the rare occasions when McAuliffe engaged this subject, his utterances were anodyne. “This pandemic is a turning point in our lives, and our goal can’t be just to go back to where we were before,” he said as he began his campaign. “We need to think big and act bold to take Virginia to the next level. And the one thing that has the opportunity to lift up all Virginians is education.”
In one sense, this boilerplate rhetoric proved prescient: Education — specifically, how and who should run the commonwealth’s public schools — was the issue that probably decided the outcome, albeit not in a way Democrats foresaw.
Reason 3: It’s the parents, stupid. On Sept. 29, a day when the RealClearPolitics polling average showed McAuliffe leading with 46.9% support (to Youngkin’s 43.4%), the candidates squared off in a debate. That night, Youngkin made two points that resonated with many voters with school-age children. The first was a broad, pandemic-era complaint: “What we’ve seen over the course of the past 20 months is school systems refusing to engage with parents.”
To illustrate this claim, Youngkin invoked an issue usually associated with cultural conservatives: a bill Gov. McAuliffe vetoed that would have given parents more agency over sexually explicit books in school libraries. “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education,” Youngkin added.
McAuliffe took the bait — and then some. He began his rebuttal by scoffing at Youngkin for being “clueless” because he’d never held elective office. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions,” McAuliffe added. That would have been sustainable, possibly even deft. But for some reason, he punctuated that thought with these 12 fateful words: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
The Youngkin campaign promptly ran ads consisting simply of a video clip of the exchange. By Election Day, Youngkin pressed his advantage repeatedly. “This is no longer a campaign,” he said. “It is a movement where we are … standing up and saying we have a fundamental right to be engaged in our kids’ education.”
Youngkin may have been a political novice, as McAuliffe pointed out snidely, but his instincts were better than those of an opponent who’d been in politics all his adult life. McAuliffe, with controversial teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten at his side, managed to galvanize thousands of tiger moms in opposition. Dads, too. Exit polling showed that 53% of voters said that parents should have “a lot of say” in their children’s education.
“That was a disaster for him,” veteran political strategist David Axelrod said Tuesday night as the votes rolled in. “I think the context was a little skewed … but it clearly galvanized voters.”
Reason 4: As the race tightened, McAuliffe doubled down on his approach to education. In the homestretch, he sounded less like the moderate middle-aged swing state Democrat who won the governorship eight years ago and more like a Gen-Z social justice warrior angling for a sinecure in a teachers’ union local. Critical race theory? Not taught anywhere in Virginia, McAuliffe maintained repeatedly — and inaccurately. Merely mentioning CRT, he sneered, is “a racist dog whistle.” McAuliffe also accused Glenn Youngkin of plotting to make abortion illegal in Virginia — which is not a power the governor possesses — and did so without feeling constrained by the facts.
By the last days of the campaign, McAuliffe was in full-on identity politics mode, asserting that minority students are made uneasy by the mere presence of white teachers. “In Virginia schools, K-12, 50% are students of color and yet 80% of teachers are white,” he said. “We all know what we have to do in a school to make everybody feel comfortable in school, so let’s diversify.”
What was the strategy here? To pump up the African American and Hispanic vote, one assumes, by making race a central component of the campaign. It may have backfired. At the least, it didn’t galvanize enough minority voters. Nor did the presence on the stump of Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris change the equation. President Biden campaigned in Virginia, too, echoing all of McAuliffe’s negative talking points, most especially the one that ultimately became the Democrats’ whole ballgame: trying to morph Glenn Youngkin into Donald Trump’s clone.
Reason 5: For his part, Youngkin threaded the needle nicely on Trump. When this race began last summer, Glenn Youngkin was unknown in Virginia politics. Those who did know his name remembered him as a high school basketball star in the Tidewater area whose father played hoops at Duke. Youngkin himself played collegiately at Rice before going into business. With wealth accrued as a partner in a private equity firm, Youngkin was able to self-fund a Republican primary campaign in which he dispatched with not one, but two, Trump disciples. But he managed to do so without alienating the former president.
Trump might have preferred one of the others, especially when Youngkin quietly rebuffed his offer to come campaign. But Trump clearly appreciated that Youngkin never bad-mouthed him, and the 45th president responded accordingly: He told his supporters to flood to the polls.
Successfully negotiating the mine field of Trump’s prickly ego not only helped Youngkin win on Tuesday. It also illuminated the path for future GOP candidates competing in states and districts that aren’t deep Republican red.
Reason 6: Virginia gubernatorial elections are traditionally tough for the party in the White House. Of the last 12 Virginia governors going back to 1977, when Republican John Dalton won office during Jimmy Carter’s first year in the Oval Office, 11 of them belonged to a different party than the president. This phenomenon can’t be blamed on Joe Biden any more than it can be blamed on Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, the Bushes, Barack Obama — or Donald Trump. In some years, the Virginia results portend a sea change, as was the case in 1993 when George Allen’s victory was an early sign of the “Republican Revolution” that gave the GOP control of both houses on Capitol Hill just one year later. Other times, such as in 1997, it foreshadowed nothing.
One historical footnote: The only time in the past 44 years that a Virginia gubernatorial candidate belonging to the same party as the president won was in 2013 when Barack Obama was president (and Joe Biden was vice president). That candidate? None other than Terry McAuliffe. It was asking a lot of him to repeat that feat. As it happened, it was asking too much.
Reason 7: Something was afoot Tuesday night, not just in the Virginia governor’s race — and not just in Virginia. In the Old Dominion, Republicans also picked up the lieutenant governorship — electing the first black woman to win statewide in Virginia history — while ousting a Democratic attorney general. In Minneapolis, voters overwhelmingly rejected a change in the city charter that would have restructured the much-maligned local police department. In Buffalo, a socialist who had won the Democratic primary for mayor was defeated by a write-in vote that went overwhelmingly to the incumbent. New York City’s new mayor is an ex-police officer who favors gun rights. Across the river in New Jersey — in the shock of the night —Ciattarelli has the incumbent Murphy on the ropes. This, in a state Joe Biden carried by 16 percentage points just one year ago.
Is President Biden a disappointment to voters, a drag on down-ticket Democrats? Perhaps, but that seems too tidy an explanation. It’s true that after a healthy honeymoon with voters, Biden’s job approval rating has plummeted amid continued spikes in violent crime, the debacle in Afghanistan, chaos at the border, the continuing coronavirus pandemic, inflation in food and energy prices, and economic uncertainty propelled by a novel problem — employers can’t find enough workers to fill the jobs they have.
And though it’s also true that Republicans are giddy this morning about finishing what they started come next year’s midterms, one plausible conclusion from Tuesday’s vote is that a majority of voters want Biden to be the president he promised to be. He was the moderate who defeated a slew of presidential contenders to his left — the one who vowed to work for all Americans, not just those who supported him. Yet he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi somehow find themselves under the thumb of the left wing of their own party. This nation’s electorate rejected the excesses of Trumpism. Tuesday was another corrective, a reminder to the Democratic Party that although few moderates remain in Washington, tens of millions of them live outside the Beltway. They are paying attention and they vote.