Financier Glenn Youngkin won the high-drama, high-spending and high-stakes Virginia gubernatorial election Tuesday. But the real winner was Donald J. Trump.
Mr. Youngkin’s successful effort to reclaim the governor’s chair in Richmond from the Democrats – a close race that experts believed the Democrat Terry McAuliffe would win easily, given Virginia’s migration into the Democratic column in the last four presidential elections – served to underline the weakness of the Democrats’ principal strategy for the new decade rather than to point a way for future party victories.
Mr. Trump, a Florida resident, was not, of course, on the ballot. But from the start, Mr. McAuliffe sought to paint Mr. Youngkin as a clone of the former president and thus to reap the benefits of antagonism to Mr. Trump. It didn’t work.
Mr. McAuliffe, who occupied the historic 208-year-old Virginia executive mansion from 2014 to 2018 and is closely identified with both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, stumbled toward the finish line – and as a result, the Democrats, who won Virginia by 10 points only a year ago, already are recasting their playbook for next year’s critical midterm congressional elections and the presidential election that follows two years later.
The old playbook was based on the phenomenon of anti-Trumpism that allowed three Democrats to defeat GOP incumbents in Virginia in the 2018 congressional elections that delivered the House of Representatives to the Democrats, and that powered the 2020 campaign of Joe Biden, who ran less on his own ideas than on the notion that he was not Mr. Trump.
“Donald Trump was a much more effective foil for Virginia Democrats when he actually was president,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. “As a former president, he doesn’t do nearly as much to energize voters. McAuliffe should have spent more time explaining why people should vote for him – and [talked] more about the far-right desire to control school boards.”
Mr. McAuliffe, and his high-priced consultants, also misread the nature of political races that do not occur in presidential-election years. In those races, the notion that “all politics is local”– promulgated by the late House speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. of Cambridge, Mass., himself a product more of the Barry’s Corner neighbourhood than of Harvard Square a 20-minute walk away – prevails.
In this case, the contest turned more on the topics taught in local schools than on the lessons of the Trump years in the White House.
One of the issues was whether Beloved, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison, should be taught in Virginia classrooms. Mr. Youngkin, a former CEO of the Carlyle Group private-equity powerhouse, argued that parents, not school authorities, should decide whether students should read books such as Beloved, with its portrayal of an enslaved woman who kills her daughter to prevent her from becoming a slave. There are also scenes of rape and bestiality.
Mr. McAuliffe erred by stating in a late September debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The education issue was particularly potent across the state and was a powerful spur to voter turnout in strong GOP areas – and in the suburbs where the Democrats are pinning their hopes for next year’s midterm congressional election.
Other issues reflected the O’Neill local orientation. Capitalizing on traditional Republican opposition to taxes, Mr. Youngkin advocated the elimination of the 2.5 per cent grocery tax and pledged to reduce other taxes. Expecting to cruise to victory, as Mr. McAuliffe’s lead seeped away in recent weeks, he emphasized few policy initiatives and doubled down on portraying his rival as an extremist in the Trump model.
And while the Democrats invested their hopes in an opposition to Mr. Trump, the Republicans profited by public skepticism of Mr. Biden. Indeed, CNN exit polls indicated that a majority of Virginia voters disapproved of the president’s record. Only a year ago, Mr. Biden, with a 451,138 bulge, won the state’s 13 electoral votes. But fear of inflation and general economic unease eroded Democratic support.
In Virginia, Mr. Youngkin, 54, ran with the support of Mr. Trump, who did not visit the state to stump for the Republican but who, the day before the election, said, “If you vote to keep the radical Democrat machine in power, they’ll totally ruin that very special place where you live and they’ll wreck the schools. They’ll crush your property values, and they’ll be in a position where you’re going to be totally powerless to stop them in the future.”
The Republican candidate embraced Trump voters, the Trump ethos and the Trump approach, but not the Trump pugilistic character nor Mr. Trump himself. The Youngkin profile was easily described: Trump Lite. The irony is that he, not Mr. McAuliffe, now has emerged as the figure pointing the way to the political future.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.