How the Republicans won in Virginia

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin claps as he arrives at a campaign rally on October 31, 2021 in Abingdon, Virginia
11 min read
Washington, D.C.
25 November, 2021
Analysis: The state seemed to have turned blue, but a well-run Republican campaign was able to tap into a diverse and frustrated constituency.

Six months ago, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe seemed like a shoo-in to win the Virginia governor’s race. He was competing in what was considered a solidly blue state, he had served in the position four years earlier, and Joe Biden had won the state by around 10 percentage points.

What could go wrong for him? Too much for one election. Pandemic school closures that tested parents’ patience, combined with the moral panic over gender-inclusive bathrooms and the teaching of critical race theory (graduate-level legal studies that aren’t taught at the grade school level), contributed to anxiety across the commonwealth’s suburbs, where Biden had triumphed over former President Donald Trump.

Virginia’s Republican convention for governor is where the party seized on an opening to run a moderate-style candidate. Instead of running the candidate who was the most popular with voters, Amanda Chase, a businesswoman nicknamed Trump in heels, who had attended the former president’s 6 January rally, the party chose their own candidate (she then filed a lawsuit against the state party).

Glenn Youngkin, a multimillionaire former private equity tycoon, was no Trump. The fleece vest-wearing basketball dad was well mannered, conveyed humility, reached out to all communities, and he let it be known that he was on the side of parents, law enforcement, all the while keeping his distance from Trump, and he would be the one to bring people back to their previously safe and stable lives.

"To anyone who had been paying attention, the result was expected"

That’s exactly what the party saw as a winnable candidate in Virginia. Many of the same voters who were appalled at Trump’s bad manners, were also appalled at what they considered overreaching control by their local school boards and, by extension, the governing Democratic Party.

For most of the general election, McAuliffe held a steady lead over Youngkin, a confirmation to many that Virginia was indeed a solidly blue Democratic state. But about a month before the election, the polls tightened, and the trend would continue until less than a week before election day, when Youngkin overtook his once-secure rival.

He had secured enough votes to be the clear winner on election night, winning by nearly two percentage points. To anyone who had been paying attention, the result was expected.

What went wrong for the Democrats

“Honestly, I wasn’t that surprised,” Mohamed Gula, Virginia Executive Director and National Organizing Director for Emgage Action, tells The New Arab. “The reason I wasn’t surprised is that a lot of the work we did was knocking on doors.”

In the months leading up to the November election, he and his team knocked on more than 10,000 doors. In the process, he heard the stories and concerns of everyday Virginians.

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“To quote Biden, people want things to get done. At the end of the day, that’s what people wanted,” he says. “In the Muslim community, there were things people were really unhappy about. People were unhappy about the way the US handled the situation in Afghanistan when it pulled out. Foreign policy came up a lot.”

As he listened to their concerns, he wondered what the Democrats should be doing differently.

Sam Rasoul, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, is no stranger to frustrations over a seemingly out-of-touch Democratic party. In 2016, he resigned his position in party leadership over such concerns. Since being in politics, he has repeatedly advocated for a more inclusive party, in which rural residents and communities of colour have their voices heard.

For this race, he thought that in the pool of potential candidates there were better options than McAuliffe.

“The party nominated the most centrist business-friendly candidate,” he says. “What we failed to do was activate rural, progressive voters. A lot of Black and brown voters have become disillusioned.”

At the same time, the Democrats did their best to peg Youngkin as a stand-in for Trump, prompting amusing montages by TV hosts showing the excessive repetition of Trump’s name in McAuliffe’s speeches, with little else to encourage people to go out and vote.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe answers questions from the press after speaking at a campaign event at the University of Lynchburg on October 27, 2021 in Lynchburg,
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe answers questions from the press after speaking at a campaign event at the University of Lynchburg on 27 October 2021 in Lynchburg. [Getty]

“McAuliffe’s campaign was just about Trump, Trump, Trump,” J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, tells TNA. Instead of explaining what a Trump-like candidate would mean for the state, like making conservative appointments and policies, “He didn’t make that case. He never made that connection. He should have talked more about the implications of that.”

In addition to making Trump a central part of their campaign in Virginia – even though the former president wasn’t on the ballot – Democrats made the mistake of relying too heavily on two other elements of their 2020 campaign playbook: high voter turnout and suburban voters.

With no-excuse mail-in voting, this gubernatorial election had one of the highest turnouts in the history of the state at 55%, compared with nearly 48% in 2017. Still, the youth vote for this election was low, a sign for progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who lamented to the New York Times in an interview published on Sunday, that McAuliffe’s campaign did not seem to want the help of progressives, a key motivator for young voters.

This was one time when Democrats could not blame voting restrictions for their loss. Voters simply chose the other candidate because that’s who they preferred. And suburban parents did not turn out for McAuliffe the way they did for Biden, showing that Democrats can’t take the suburbs for granted.

"In addition to making Trump a central part of their campaign in Virginia, Democrats made the mistake of relying too heavily on two other elements of their 2020 campaign playbook: high voter turnout and suburban voters"

What went right for Republicans

Meanwhile, Youngkin, the centrist-style Republican, whom the party had likely chosen in part because he was not close to Trump (something voters had generally shown they were against in the last presidential election), was gaining momentum throughout Virginia.

With the help of his opponent, who said during a debate that “parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach,” Youngkin was able to capitalise on the frustrations of parents, many of whom had for a good portion of the pandemic home-schooled their children, only to be made to feel they should not have a say in their children’s education. This was combined with discussions over the non-existent critical race theory curriculum.

“I think what’s happening is that the conversation is becoming more sophisticated,” says Rasoul. “Trump was being more explicit. You can now talk about critical race theory, and most people don’t know what it is. It became this meeting place, not only about race, but about agency and parental control. People need a good reason to forfeit their agency.”

Youngkin’s campaign did not fit neatly into the category of the decades-long “southern strategy” of appealing to racism in largely rural white areas against African Americans. Instead, the oddly galvanising debate over critical race theory, which was highlighted at school board meetings in Loudoun County – the wealthiest county in the country – became an outlet for parents who felt uncomfortable with the way history was being taught at their local schools. 

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on 2 November 2021. [Getty]

“What we’ve seen over the past five years is a capitalisation on the frustration around socio-economic issues,” says Rasoul. “People are unable to envision a brighter future for them and their family. It makes it easier for politicians to point fingers. BLM (Black Lives Matter) and CRT (critical race theory) are places for people to point their frustrations.”

He says, “Clearly race is involved in it. But we’re not getting to the real meat of the issue. If people thought Democrats were working to advance their lives and not just their own power, they would have had another reaction.”

These missteps by Democrats worked to the advantage of Republicans, as they were able to build momentum on traditional values expressed for a modern campaign.

“I think Youngkin was able to successfully send signals to a Trump crowd and play to certain family values, without being very deep on policy,” says Rasoul. “Our counter to that was ‘Youngkin is Trump.’ We may have increased Youngkin’s turnout by pushing that association, activating Trump voters.”

Amid his traditional campaigning, Youngkin was successfully reaching out to minority communities. He courted Arabs, Muslims, Blacks and Hispanics, meeting them at their places of worship and community centres.

"People are unable to envision a brighter future for themselves and their family. It makes it easier for politicians to point fingers. BLM (Black Lives Matter) and CRT (critical race theory) are places for people to point their frustrations"

It was a departure from many years of candidates from both parties going out of their way to avoid being seen with Muslim constituents (in some cases avoiding pictures with them or refusing their donations). And it was definitely a departure from Trump’s overt mocking and threats of minority communities. Youngkin was able to strike a balance between inclusivity and traditional values.

As Gula with his team from Emgage met voters at their doors, he heard from Muslims who supported Youngkin. Some liked his platform of smaller government and his experience as a businessman. Others said they were against critical race theory, though unclear on what it was. Others were just happy he’d reached out to them.

Youngkins’s community outreach didn’t stop at the election. Within a week of his win, he visited various community centres, including the ADAMS Center Mosque in Sterling in northern Virginia.

“It was wonderful to visit the ADAMS Center Mosque this afternoon for lunch and a roundtable. Thank you to the congregation for opening up your home of worship to me! I look forward to many more visits over the next four years,” wrote Youngkin in a 5 November tweet, along with pictures of him with his arms around the Muslim community leaders.

Could this be a sign that he will govern with the same kind of inclusivity with which he campaigned?

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Concern over his policies, impressed with his campaign

For now, Youngkin is continuing to reach out to his diverse constituency. But as the days pass, the reality for those on the other side of the aisle is sinking in. He was endorsed by Trump, something he did not reject. He has also indicated that he would work to reverse women’s reproductive rights, he has made statements against mask mandates, and his pro-business messaging could indicate he will be against workers’ rights.

“We fear what the new government will do with the covid pandemic. One of the main victories we’ve had is with workers’ rights and collective bargaining. We fear this government will be a burden to workers and their rights. We’re also concerned about criminal justice reform. We want to make sure we have representative judges,” Mo Seifeldein, a council member for the city of Alexandria in northern Virginia, tells TNA. “Whether or not he does something is yet to be seen.”

He adds, “I think the re-emergence of the Southern Strategy hasn’t gone away completely. It got rejuvenated in 2016, but it was more in your face. The current governor-elect took on this strategy. If the rhetoric continues, we could see incidents. We’ll work with our communities as elected officials to make sure our communities are safe, that laws are followed, and that people are respected.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), hate crime in Virginia is pervasive, compared with other states in the mid-Atlantic. In 2020, there were 170 reported incidents in a population of abouts 8.5 million, compared with 40 in neighbouring Maryland with a population of about 6.2 million, and 81 in Pennsylvania with a population of 13.1 million.

The reason for most reported attacks is race, followed by sexual orientation. Immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia, whose populations in Virginia have increased significantly over the past decade, are also vulnerable to such attacks. 

"The reality is America is hurting. Americans are tired. They don't care if you’re Republican or Democrat. They just want it to work. People want a path to success"

Though Youngkin has not made overtly bigoted statements in his campaign or since the election, some Democrats point out that prominent figures in the Republican base, most notably Trump, have regularly used nativist language, which Youngkin has not strongly repudiated, leading to concerns that the state has not fully moved on from its intolerant past. 

Of all the states in the union, Virginia has generally experienced the biggest political shift over the last decade, going from solid red before former President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, to solid blue with Biden’s 2020 presidential victory. Earlier this year, it became the first southern state to suspend the death penalty; it implemented a bar on police from searching due to the odour of marijuana, and it banned no-knock warrants.

With the election of Glenn Youngkin, has Virginia once again turned red?

“I think Virginia is a blue state, just as we see in Maryland and Massachusetts, where voters will not blindly give power to a party. They want you to earn it,” says Rasoul, referring to two Democratic states with Republican governors. “We have to be careful to not be too self-righteous. We need to make sure we’re digging into these communities – rural areas and communities of colour. They have the same frustrations.”  

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For Gula, whose team knocked on the doors of immigrants and rural residents, saw much of this frustration first-hand.

“The reality is America is hurting. Americans are tired. They don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat. They just want it to work. People want a path to success. If someone came to me and was able to connect with me, and they were able to help, I’d vote for them,” says Gula.

“Youngkin is a multimillionaire, but he knew how to connect with his base, and he knew how to connect with independents. He’s a talented politician. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the future of the Republican party. If he runs for president in 2028, he would most likely win.”

He adds, “I thought it was a masterclass campaign. When you look at it from a tactical perspective, he did a very good job. I hate saying that.”

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's correspondent in Washington DC, covering US and international politics, business and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews