This summer, all signs pointed to Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former governor Terry McAuliffe beating Republican nominee and political newcomer Glenn Youngkin. McAuliffe led by 7 percent in August polling; the Democratic candidate in Virginia had won by 10 percent in the 2020 presidential election and 9 percent in the 2017 gubernatorial election. Moreover, Republicans had not won a statewide race since 2009. But the contest began to tighten in the fall, and McAuliffe’s late-September debate gaffe about parents and schools helped shift the momentum to Youngkin.
I have argued elsewhere that the radicalization of the Democratic Party has provided the GOP with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a “coalition of the sane”—uniting conservatives, centrists, and even disaffected Democrats by unflinchingly opposing the unpopular agenda of the illiberal Left but avoiding conspiracy theories and distancing itself from the far Right. Youngkin executed this strategy to near perfection. He won independent voters by 9 percent—last year, Trump lost them by 19 percent—and yet still turned out an enthusiastic base. Remarkably, Youngkin improved on Trump’s performance with whites without college degrees by 28 percentage points.
His victory offers three key lessons for Republicans. First, Youngkin relentlessly opposed the cultural agenda of the newly ascendant illiberal Left. Last year progressive activists waged a successful campaign to eliminate entrance exams at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), one of the top public math and science magnet schools in the country, merely because Asian-Americans were overrepresented in the student body. Virginia’s Department of Education also sought to eliminate accelerated math programs below 11th grade because Asian overrepresentation reduced equity between groups. Traditionally, Democrats have opposed explicit racial quotas, which the Supreme Court has deemed unconstitutional, while supporting racial preferences for underrepresented groups. Now, however, the party is committed to the idea of “equity,” or the notion that the demographics of an institution must reflect those of society at large, as popularized by Ibram X. Kendi and other public voices on the left.
Meantime, the Youngkin campaign advocated creating at least 20 new charter schools, expanding the state’s Advanced Placement program, reversing the changes to the admission process at TJHSST, strengthening school choice, and promising a less politicized curriculum. In September, McAuliffe led by 33 percent among voters who felt that education was the most important issue. In November, Youngkin won these voters by 6 percent.
Youngkin also advocated replacing the entire Virginia Parole Board, which has shown leniency toward violent criminals. The Board released cop-killer Vincent Martin, who was serving a life sentence. The Virginia inspector general issued a scathing report noting violations in Martin’s release and in those of eight other convicted killers. The Board also released a man convicted of 56 felonies who proceeded to rob a gas station shortly after release.
Second, Youngkin avoided conspiracy theories and extremism and deftly triangulated where necessary. Though teachers’ unions were at the forefront of the anti-Youngkin campaign, the Republican candidate still advocated increasing teacher pay and refrained from inflammatory anti-teacher rhetoric, which has backfired on GOP politicians in the past. He not only accepted the results of the 2020 presidential election but also went on the offensive, pointing out McAuliffe’s refusal to accept the outcome of 2000’s presidential election.
On race, Youngkin avoided any associations with white identitarianism, which has plagued the Virginia GOP in the recent past. In 2018, for example, GOP Senate nominee Corey Stewart had associations with white nationalists, said that no white nationalist movement existed in America, and suggested that politicians who supported removing Confederate statues were “just like ISIS.” Voters give Democrats a 12 percent advantage on race, yet paradoxically 73 percent of Americans support the Republican position that race should not factor into college admissions. Condemning white identitarianism while taking a strong stance in favor of race neutrality will likely pay dividends for Republicans.
On abortion, 58 percent of Virginia voters are pro-choice and only 37 percent pro-life—yet Youngkin won by an astonishing 17-percent margin among the 8 percent of voters who believe that abortion was the most important issue. He managed this by saying that he would not sign a law similar to Texas’s Heartbeat Act, while advocating banning abortions when the baby is developed enough to feel pain in the womb. In addition, he hammered McAuliffe on taxpayer funding of abortion and late-term abortion, both of which voters overwhelmingly oppose. Upcoming Supreme Court cases may soon place abortion at the center of public attention, possibly even leading to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Given America’s pro-choice majority, Republicans need to emphasize that this will not affect abortion access in pro-choice states; they should also make the case that Americans and their elected representatives at the state level, rather than unelected judges, should settle the issue.
Third, Democrats may not be able to pull themselves out of this mess. Republicans mocked and Democrats criticized McAuliffe’s incessant focus on tying Youngkin to Trump, but this was not an outlandish strategy in a state that Trump lost handily. The Democrats’ response to critical race theory, however, was bizarre. They insisted that critical race theory was not being taught in schools and that assertions to the contrary were lies promoted by right-wing media despite its presence being acknowledged across the political spectrum. The sensible approach for McAuliffe would have been to acknowledge that the curriculum had some problems and to pledge that his administration would conduct a full-scale review, while emphasizing the importance of studying the negative aspects of American history along with the positive. Instead, McAuliffe assumed that parents were not intelligent enough to perceive what was actually being taught and argued that the key to improving education in Virginia was reducing the proportion of white teachers.
Going forward, the obvious strategy for Democrats would seem to be focusing on bread-and-butter issues and not promoting an extreme cultural agenda, but this may not be as easy as it sounds. Leading Democratic data scientist David Shor argues that highly educated left-wing activists have disproportionate power in the party. Worse, as commentator Andrew Sullivan notes, educated elites “have chosen critical theory over liberalism as their view of the world,” and this worldview guides every major cultural institution in the country. Left-wing critics accused Shor himself of “anti-blackness,” which led to his being fired from his job in early 2020. His offense? Merely tweeting a paper from a black Princeton professor showing that historically peaceful protests helped Democrats while violent riots hurt. Post-election analyses in prestigious progressive-leaning publications have depicted opposition to critical race theory in Virginia’s education curriculum and support for Youngkin as modern-day examples of white resistance to eliminating slavery and Jim Crow—even though the Republican Lieutenant Governor-elect and Attorney General-elect will become the first black woman and Hispanic, respectively, to hold these posts.
With such extreme views now the norm on the left, Republicans have an unparalleled opportunity for electoral dominance. It’s up to them to seize it.
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