Suburban Fleece Daddy Glenn Youngkin led Virginia Republicans out of the wilderness in early November, winning back white suburban voters to take the governorship. But he did even more: He helped the GOP win back the lieutenant governor and attorney general offices and flip the House of Delegates from blue to red. As I write, Democrats have gone from a 55-45 edge there to a probable 48-52 deficit, with two races in recount territory.
Youngkin, the former Carlyle titan, swapped out his suits for his trademark fleece vests and reassured white suburban parents he’s just like them: anxious as hell. During the Trump years—and I start the clock in 2011, when the real estate mediocrity turned reality TV star became a political phenomenon by pitching the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States—Republicans traded in their dog whistles about race for a blatantly racist bullhorn. Trump bellowed that undocumented Mexican immigrants were bringing drugs and crime here, characterized non-white countries as “shitholes,” and counted Nazis and white supremacists among the “very fine people” at the deadly 2017 protest in Charlottesville. But that got uncomfortable for many white suburbanites, especially women.
This year Youngkin, and much of the Virginia GOP, introduced a new, improved dog whistle. You could hear it, if you listened closely, in the panic about “critical race theory” taking over K-12 classrooms or the disingenuous closing ad featuring a wealthy white mom complaining that as governor, McAuliffe had forced high schoolers to read “explicit” books. The ad never mentioned that, for the mom in question, the book was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but the people who needed to got the picture. It must also be said: A lot of the agitation around Virginia public education can be traced directly to the strains of parenting during Covid, when in-person schooling stopped there for much of the last 20 months.
Of course, the ultimate dog whistle was Youngkin’s slippery embrace of Trump. He welcomed the disgraced ex-president’s endorsement, but he kept him out of Virginia. He managed to convey to far-right voters he was with Trump while reassuring white suburbanites he was one of them. (And he did better with Virginia’s far-right white rural voters than Trump did.) It’s easy to say McAuliffe ran a lackluster campaign, but I covered Governor Ralph Northam in 2017 and didn’t see a whole lot of luster there—and he won by nine points. That year, Democrats won not just the governor’s race but 15 seats in the House of Delegates, as the anti-Trump resistance funneled thousands of volunteers into that first big test for Democrats.
This year, Republicans rode the wave of a nascent anti–Joe Biden resistance. Of course, the party that wins the White House virtually always loses in Virginia’s off-year election. But the Biden administration didn’t do much to thwart that trend. Party infighting over Biden’s infrastructure and social spending priorities, and the lack of urgency around passing a voting rights bill, didn’t exactly serve as an advertisement for trifecta control by Democrats, either in Washington, D.C., or Richmond.
What’s been toughest about the Virginia losses, for me, is that they seem to disprove one of my most cherished theories of political change: If you deliver on your promises, voters will reelect you. Virginia Democrats expanded Medicaid, raised the minimum wage, passed the Equal Rights Amendment, expanded voting access, loosened abortion restrictions, raised pay for teachers and first responders, and more.
Still, it could have been even worse. Some Democratic incumbents in Northern Virginia and the Richmond area, including Wendy Gooditis, Schuyler VanValkenburg, Elizabeth Guzmán, and Dan Helmer, were down in preelection polling but nonetheless pulled it out. My Virginia sources insist that the endangered Democrats who pulled off a victory were the ones who were able to cut through the noise and highlight their records. “Our candidates who won ran on their records—they didn’t run away from them,” says the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee’s Christina Polizzi.
In suburban Loudoun County, where the CRT panic was perhaps most intense, a lot of Democrats thought incumbent Wendy Gooditis was a goner. Instead, Gooditis—who ran a locally focused race with multiple ads on education that drew attention to her opponent’s opposition to mask and vaccine mandates in schools—emerged with a win. Maybe most important, as her opponent, Nick Clemente, tried to make hay over the ridiculously distorted story of a sexual assault in a Loudoun County high school’s girls’ bathroom—conservative media claimed it was the action of a transgender student, but it wasn’t—Gooditis highlighted the important work she’d done on child sexual abuse issues while in the legislature. On the other hand, quite a few Democrats ran awesome, locally tailored races too and lost anyway.
The truth is, though many Virginia Democrats delivered for their voters, our media and, increasingly, our elections have become nationalized. McAuliffe and others tried to make the best of that by tying Youngkin to Trump. But Youngkin, the man in reassuring fleece, never turned into Trumpkin. Let’s hope that by the 2022 midterms congressional Democrats have passed enough of their agenda that a nationalized election makes these Virginia results a bad but irrelevant memory.