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Republican won the race to be Virginia’s next governor Tuesday night, handing the GOP a major victory in a contest that could have huge national implications as the party looks to retake Congress next year and the presidency in 2024.
Virginia had been trending solidly blue over the past decade. President Biden carried the state by last year. The current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, won by in 2017. Youngkin’s narrow victory over Terry McAuliffe, himself a former Democratic governor, was part of a statewide sweep that saw Republicans also winning races for and .
Youngkin leaned heavily on cultural issues during the campaign, specifically those surrounding . He was deeply critical of COVID-related school closures, and — an academic concept that’s not taught in K-12 schools but has become a catchall term among conservatives to describe what they see as an overemphasis on racial justice in school curricula. Youngkin also took a measured approach to the Republican Party’s standard-bearer, former President Donald Trump. Youngkin accepted Trump’s endorsement but didn’t invite him to campaign in the state in person, even though and former President did go to Virginia on McAuliffe’s behalf.
Democrats narrowly avoided an even more shocking defeat in New Jersey, where incumbent won a nail-biter against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in a race that he was expected to win comfortably.
Why there’s debate
Youngkin’s win has sparked a new round of incriminations among Democrats — with moderates and progressives blaming each other. There’s also a parallel debate going on about what Youngkin did right, and whether his approach can translate into future victories for the GOP.
In the eyes of many pundits from both sides of the political aisle, Youngkin’s campaign can provide a template that could carry Republicans to victory in the races that will determine control of Congress next year. They argue that education in particular — with an emphasis on antigovernment sentiment and racial grievance — is an issue that’s perfectly designed to tap into anger among the Republican base while also bringing back some of the suburban voters who had abandoned the party since 2016.
The race may also have provided a model for a question that every GOP candidate will have to answer: how to keep the support of Trump’s most loyal followers without turning off swing voters. Youngkin did just enough — both in rhetoric and his personal style — to distance himself from the former president, but adeptly avoided criticizing him.
Skeptics caution against making any grand predictions about future races based on Tuesday’s results. They argue that by the time the midterms come around, the pandemic may be all but over, the economy could be booming and Congress may have enacted major parts of Biden’s agenda — all shifts that could undercut the arguments that worked so well for Youngkin. Democrats will also have nearly a year to refine their education message to counter GOP attacks. Others say it will be increasingly difficult to keep Trump on the sidelines of key races as he positions himself for a possible presidential run in 2024.
Even if they haven’t landed on a winning strategy coming out of Virginia, Republicans still have a lot of reason to hope they’ll be able to take back control of Congress next November. Historically, midterms tend to swing against the party that holds the presidency. GOP lawmakers are also working to tip the scales in their favor by drawing favorable congressional maps and passing voting restrictions that analysts say will make it harder for Democratic-leaning voters to cast ballots.
Education is the ideal issue to help the GOP regain the suburban voters it needs to win
“Republican gains in the suburbs are attributable to Trump not being on the ballot or in office. (Trump was uniquely unappealing to suburban voters — especially women.) But, at least in the case of Virginia, Youngkin’s emphasis on education — from ‘woke’ administrators to Covid-19 restrictions to critical race theory — resonated with suburbanites in ways that Republicans have struggled to do of late.” — Chris Cillizza,
Virginia showed that cultural issues, rather than policy, are key to GOP victory
Having education at the center of debate puts Democrats in an impossible position
“The big problem for Democrats is that education has become a classic issue in which Democrats, by the nature of their constituency, are forced to take positions that run contrary to the electorate. A Democrat cannot come out against CRT or defy the teachers’ unions. ... Republicans should ride this issue hard and continue to force Democrats to choose between parents and unionized teachers. Because guess what? There are a lot more parents.” — Philip Klein,
Youngkin showed how to thread the needle when it comes to Trump
“Mr. Youngkin triangulated the Trump dilemma with skill. He didn’t attack the former President but he also didn’t invite him to campaign with him. Mr. McAuliffe tried to wrap Mr. Trump around the Republican but it didn’t work because Mr. Youngkin was so un-Trump-like. He could talk about some of the same cultural issues, such as critical race theory in schools, but without playing into the hands of the Democrats who want to portray all Republicans as racists.” — Editorial,
Youngkin’s approach can work, but only with the right candidate and circumstances
“If Republicans can find political outsiders with the instincts to identify widely popular grassroots issues that the ideologically hidebound Left ignores, and the discipline to stay on message, they can win elections, even in states where they haven’t won in over a decade.” — Editorial,
Education won’t necessarily be as potent an issue in other races
“Fundamentally, the contest was about schools — specifically, how many parents remain frustrated by the way public schools have handled the coronavirus pandemic. Whether the Virginia results translate to other states will depend on how schools in those states reacted to the spread of COVID-19, and whether a major national issue can take the place of these local frustrations in voters’ minds.” — Zachary D. Carter,
There are far too many variables in Virginia to identify what led to Youngkin’s win
“There are dozens of reasons that races tip one way or another in a given election, and Virginia is no exception there. Trying to pinpoint the exact causes when the official vote counts are still being processed is a mania that I truly can’t understand. ... All of these attempts to pinpoint the answer ignore the myriad ways that demographics, turnout, geography, candidate appeals and policy mix together.” — Hayes Brown,
Trump may throw a wrench in the strategy for future races
“If the GOP cannot figure out a way beyond Trump, it will be wedded to his mercurial temperament and distaste for democracy. And it will also be stuck with a leader who lost the popular vote in a landslide last year while other Republicans made gains.” — Jon Ward,
Governor’s races aren’t always reflective of broader trends
“It’s a mistake to read too closely the results of any one governor’s race; these races are affected by national partisan trends but aren’t as closely linked to them as presidential and congressional races. Voters in solid red states Louisiana and Kentucky are still willing to elect Democratic governors, while voters in solid blue states Massachusetts and Vermont have in recent years chosen Republicans.” — Andrew Prokop,
Democrats have every opportunity to counter critical race theory attacks
“This result in Virginia is a disaster, yes, but it doesn’t mean they should panic about this new wedge issue. ... It really should not be that hard for Democrats to say something like they support a thorough and true teaching of American history but oppose instruction that teaches that all white people are active accomplices in this country’s racial sins.” — Michael Tomasky,
The Virginia loss could ultimately help Democrats hone a better midterm strategy
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