I saw Virginia’s November election results on a cool September night in Virginia Beach, but I didn’t want to believe what I was seeing.
It was a forum where incumbent Democrat Nancy Guy squared off against challenger Tim Anderson, a local attorney best known for defending two Trumpists who’d attended the January 6 insurrection. I guess I expected Anderson to look something like the QAnon shaman. He was, in person, a mild-mannered suburban dad in a gray sport coat who’d sanded the rough edges off his platform and mainly promised to bring some balance back to Democrat-dominated Richmond, and hell, can ya blame him?
“A balanced government is a better government,” Anderson intoned. Critical race theory? He acknowledged that the legal-studies approach wasn’t taught in Virginia public schools, but said they’re nonetheless teaching white students “you should apologize for being white.” (That’s gotta hurt.) He compared school vouchers to letting parents “collectively bargain” with schools. He didn’t want to demonize transgender kids; he just worried that Virginia’s policies meant his son’s school couldn’t tell him if his son decided to switch genders. (I could not quite get my mind around that one.)
All the emphasis on education foreshadowed the issue that would block former governor Terry McAuliffe from his second shot at the big job: a sense among the suburban voters who’ve swung dramatically to the Democrats over the past 10 years that the kids are not alright, and though it’s not totally clear what can be done about it, one-party rule, whether in Richmond or Washington, D.C., must be part of the problem. “A balanced government is a better government…” It looks like Anderson defeated Guy in Virginia Beach, while suburban dad extraordinaire Glenn Youngkin, the fleece-vested former Carlyle executive and political newcomer, sent McAuliffe home. The results aren’t all in yet, but the GOP might have won back the House of Delegates, too.
A year from now, Democrats might be grateful for this wake-up call.
Whatever we’re doing, it’s not working. It looks like McAuliffe lost those white suburban moms who marched on Washington to protest Donald Trump in 2017, and then marched on the Virginia state elections that same year, as well as the Black voters who helped flip both the House of Delegates and state Senate blue over the last four years. According to Politico, “Trump lost the Virginia suburbs 45-53, while Youngkin won the suburbs 53-47.” Even scarier: “Trump won non-college whites 62-38. Youngkin won those voters by a whopping 76-24.”
I will not indulge that old lefty chestnut—“Democrats just didn’t do what they promised”—because they did. They raised the minimum wage, passed the Equal Rights Amendment, vastly expanded voting access, undid creepy abortion restrictions, raised pay for teachers and first responders, and so much more. It is not promising for my personal theory of political change—that delivering to your voters ensures their loyalty.
In Washington, the Democrats best do what they promise anyway, or else we’ll have lots more theories of change when they lose.
I know, I’ve waited all this time to mention what everyone considers the 12 most consequential words in American politics right now: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe was defending his veto of a bill that would have let parents opt out of challenging books for their kids, specifically, in that case, Beloved by Toni Morrison. When Youngkin ran a closing ad featuring the mom who fought for that bill (she didn’t mention Beloved or Toni Morrison), people like me thought he’d wildly miscalculated. McAuliffe handed out copies of Beloved at one of his last rallies.
Obviously, people like me were wrong. And that also required my ignoring something I knew: Beloved is the only book that ever gave me nightmares. Its depiction of the cruelties of slavery are worthy of the Nobel Prize. We need that, and a lot more of it. Still, it’s possible to think it’s not the best book for 17- and 18-year-olds (by the way, the book is a national Advanced Placement English requirement, and neither Terry McAuliffe nor Glenn Youngkin can change that).
Youngkin’s most skillful achievement might be getting the exact right distance from Donald Trump, while not letting daylight develop between them. I didn’t think he could pull it off, to be honest. When Trump hinted that he was heading to northern Virginia this week—heavily Democratic Arlington, no less—I cheered, and so did McAuliffe. But the disgraced, twice-impeached former president did no such thing—after Youngkin made it clear that he didn’t want him. Trump held a Monday night “tele-rally” for Youngkin that was so short and so under-promoted I couldn’t find the link until it was over.
Which brings me back to the other way Anderson’s rise predicted Youngkin’s. The dull September candidates’ forum was enlivened when insurrectionist state Senator Amanda Chase walked into the room, surrounded by acolytes, her purse bedazzled by an American flag. I asked her about Anderson’s distancing himself from her politically. He told The Washington Post, “Amanda Chase is not extremely effective because her colleagues just don’t like her.”
And she told me,“I talked to him and he said that’s not what he meant by that.”
That’s exactly the way Youngkin treated Trump, and Trump’s supporters, time and again. That crazy rally, where Chase and Steve Bannon (and Trump, who phoned in) plus other right-wing nut jobs saluted an American flag that was, allegedly, hoisted at the insurrection? After a day or so of punting, Youngkin called it “weird and wrong.” I think if I were able to reach Trump, he’d sound a lot like Chase: loyal, while denying that his candidate had repeatedly distanced himself. “I talked to him and he said that’s not what he meant by that.”
We’ll see what Youngkin meant by his fabulously partial and ambiguous embrace of Trump soon enough. This was not a good night. But it either let us practice for winning the 2022 midterms—or practice losing, which used to be routine in Virginia.