If you did nothing but consume Democratic Party propaganda on the eve of the Virginia gubernatorial election, you would imagine that Harry Byrd, the infamous segregationist governor of Virginia, was making a comeback. That comparison, between Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and Byrd, was made by Mary Kadera, a progressive candidate for the Arlington School Board who was elected in Tuesday’s race. But she was not the only one drawing such analogies.
President Joe Biden implicitly compared Youngkin to one of the rioters who flooded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, using his remarks at a rally in Northern Virginia to warn Democrats that extremism “can come in many forms. It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest”—a reference to Youngkin’s now-iconic attire. McAuliffe himself accused Youngkin of using a “racist dog whistle” in his campaign, referring to the Republican’s support for greater parental involvement in shaping school curricula and opposition to critical race theory-inspired instruction.
Left-leaning cable news was even more explicit. As Youngkin surged in the polls, the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, long considered the dean of Virginia political analysts, appeared on MSNBC the week of the election to warn that the “there’s a lot of, we can call it, white backlash, white resistance, whatever you want to call it.”
The message from Democrats and their allies in the media was simple: Youngkin was a race-baiting extremist, running to retake Virginia for whites. The ex-Republicans at the Lincoln Project certainly thought this was the right line of attack when they had their operatives pretend to be white nationalist Youngkin supporters—a stunt that quickly went sideways when Internet sleuths uncovered their identities.
Youngkin is no extremist, and the voters who elected him are not trying to return Virginia to the 1920s. The same voters elected Winsome Sears, a Jamaican immigrant, as lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares, a Cuban-American son of immigrants, as attorney general.
I’ve lived in Virginia off and on since 2009 and have seen the state drift to leftward during that period. Like many, I assumed the state would be solid blue for a generation. But in recent years, I’ve also begun to notice that the Democrats’ increasing drive for social and cultural reform in the name of anti-racism—which includes everything from taking Robert E. Lee’s iconic house off Arlington county’s flag to eliminating the use of a test-only process for admissions to selective high schools—was nationalizing the state’s politics. Particularly in Northern Virginia, the most liberal part of the state, the difference between local and national Democrats began to evaporate. Could Virginia really sustain that kind of Democratic Party?
The answer began to reveal itself during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many Democratic-run school districts closed their doors to in-person learning, much as Democratic-aligned school districts did nationwide. (Research has shown that union density and partisanship predicted closings better than local infection rates.) These shutdowns were in some ways even more severe than what school districts were doing elsewhere in the country. In prosperous Fairfax County, kindergarteners, who face a minuscule risk from Covid-19, weren’t allowed to attend in-person learning as late as November 2020. Unsurprisingly, standardized test scores dropped across the state following the closures. Even in prosperous Northern Virginia, test scores fell by double digits.
The Democratic Party never owned up to the human catastrophe it created for Virginia’s kids. McAuliffe declined to comment on whether closing schools was a mistake. The party took for granted its electoral advantage on education. What were parents going to do—vote Republican?
Maybe that’s what McAuliffe was thinking in his last debate with Youngkin on September 29. The two were arguing over legislation McAuliffe had vetoed during his first term as governor that would have let parents opt their children out of sexually explicit instructional material. Frustrated, McAuliffe uttered a line that came to define the race. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach!” he thundered. The line became the subject of a Youngkin attack ad. For weeks, the candidate and his allies in conservative media hammered McAuliffe on education, and polls showed that Virginia voters responded favorably to it.
Much of the national media portrayed Youngkin’s education platform as primarily aimed at critical race theory, but Youngkin’s overarching message was broader than the CRT issue—he argued that parents are the primary stewards of their children and deserve a seat at the table when it comes to deciding what their kids learn. Youngkin paired this argument with criticism of Covid-19 school shutdowns and a pledge to boost teacher salaries. In an unusual move for a Southern Republican, he also openly campaigned against Dominion Energy, a powerful utility with ties to McAuliffe, and pledged to eliminate grocery taxes.
Youngkin also managed to walk a fine line in his relationship with former President Donald Trump. He accepted Trump’s endorsement and refused to denounce him, but he also never asked Trump to join him on the campaign trail. This allowed Youngkin to reap Republican votes without alienating potential swing voters. He emphasized the social and cultural issues that mattered most to his base—Democratic school policies—while de-emphasizing ones that would alienate swing voters, like abortion, immigration, and gay marriage. While McAuliffe called in Democratic bigwigs, including President Biden, to campaign by his side, Youngkin stayed focused on local issues and declined to nationalize the race.
Far from being a racist demagogue who wants to ban books, as McAuliffe alleged, Youngkin won because he was able to weave together a coalition that combined die-hard Republicans with skeptical independents and Democrats who felt ignored by the state’s party for too long. McAuliffe ran a campaign based on Virginians’ greatest fears. Youngkin ran on their hopes for pragmatic governance rather than permanent cultural revolution and hardline Covid-19 policies. Hope won in Virginia.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images