WASHINGTON, DC The Republican Glenn Youngkin beat the Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the election for the governor of Virginia on 2 November. To put it another way, a Republican just narrowly became governor in a state that the US president, Joe Biden, a Democrat, won handily in 2020.
Does this mean the rest of Biden’s presidency is doomed? And that Democrats are sure to lose the House of Representatives in midterm elections next year?
Here are three things we can probably take away from Virginia’s election, and two we probably can’t.
We can probably say…
Republicans are going to continue to talk about critical race theory. Did people actually cast their votes because they didn’t want their children learning critical race theory? It’s hard to say. Critical race theory states that racism is embedded in US social and legal institutions, leading to unequal outcomes for different races. Opponents argue it classes all white people as oppressors and all black people as victims.
We don’t know how many people voted because of the school systems, and we certainly don’t know how much of that was frustration with education after a year and a half of pandemic as opposed to how much of it was about critical race theory (or whatever people think of when they think of critical race theory, be that the actual legal theory to which the term refers or a vague sense of wariness about racial diversity). But Republicans railed against it, and Youngkin repeatedly stressed the idea that this election was about parents having control over their children’s education. Republicans won, and so we should expect more of that in the future.
Republicans won’t quit Trump. As I wrote on 27 October, at the beginning of the campaign Youngkin seemed to be trying to distance himself from his party and its unofficial leader. But as voting day approached, he sounded more like the former president Donald Trump. He even went so far as to push the idea that operatives allied to George Soros, the financier who has become a right-wing bogeyman, were infiltrating school boards. Trump himself held a tele-rally to support Youngkin, going so far as to issue a statement saying that the two were aligned. There are good reasons for Republicans to distance themselves from Trump: he continues to push baseless theories about electoral fraud and the legitimacy of US democratic process, for one. But members of the party have their own reason to keep him around, even if they’re a bit subtler about it: namely, they think they need him to win.
Democrats can’t just run against Trump and expect to win. I live in Washington, DC, which means I saw some of the ads that McAuliffe ran. The majority were not about how McAuliffe would make Virginia better, or even about the genuinely positive things Virginia Democrats have done in the past few years. Instead, the focus was on how much Youngkin resembled Trump and what horrible things he would do to the state. Particularly in a year that did not also have a presidential election featuring Trump, this was not enough.
We probably can’t say…
Progressives are to blame. Even ahead of the election, some rushed to blame progressive Democrats for McAuliffe’s loss. This rings hollow for two reasons. Firstly, because progressive Democrats have been the ones championing Biden’s agenda. Its primary source of opposition within the party is the centrist senator Joe Manchin, who could effectively sink the President’s programme in a Senate in which Democrats have only 50 votes. And secondly, the candidate who ran was McAuliffe, the establishment Democrats’ establishment Democrat (he was quite literally the Democratic National Committee chair), who beat more progressive candidates to become the Democratic nominee for the race.
Democrats are in terrible shape nationwide and Biden is forever lost. This was a bad night for Democrats in Virginia. It was thus not a particularly good night for Biden, who said on the day of the election that he thought McAuliffe would win Virginia, and who would have benefited from a win at home while he is abroad. But the White House’s party has only won one Virginia election for governor since the 1970s (the successful candidate was, incidentally, Terry McAuliffe). And elsewhere, the news was less grim for the Democrats. Progressives will take solace in the election of Michelle Wu, a Green New Deal candidate and disciple of the former Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. Wu will be the first woman and the first Asian-American to serve as mayor of Boston. And midterm elections are still a full year away.
The takeaway for Democrats, in other words, should be that they lost the governor’s mansion, but not all hope – and that, to rekindle that hope, they need to offer Americans something other than “not Trump”.