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If Democrats Can Lose in Virginia, They Can Lose Almost Anywhere

By Elaine Godfrey and Russell Berman/ The Atlantic

Led by a candidate who neither repudiated nor embraced Trump, the GOP sweeps to victory.

Anna Moneymaker / Getty

LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va.—The beer was flowing, the handmade potato chips were self-serve, and hope was in the air. Early in the night, the Loudoun County Democrats who gathered at the Döner Bistro in Leesburg were cautiously—anxiously—optimistic: Sure, it had been a rough year. A global pandemic, regular protests at the local school-board meetings, and the contentious governor’s race, rife with misinformation, had pitted neighbor against neighbor. But these volunteers had done the work. They were confident that Democrats could pull off the first victory of the midterm cycle and set the stage for next year’s elections. “The commonwealth moves forward, not backwards,” Lissa Savaglio, the president of the group, said from a stage at the front of the restaurant. “We’re not interested in repeating history.”

The voters of Virginia had other ideas, handing the Republican private-equity executive Glenn Youngkin the governorship one year after helping deliver the presidency to Joe Biden. Despite Savaglio’s hopes, the GOP triumph repeated history, extending Virginia’s decades-long habit of voting against the president’s party a year into his first term. Youngkin defeated former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who was seeking to reclaim the office he’d held for a single term, from 2013 to 2017.

The loss was a bracing comedown for Democrats, who had been ascendant in Virginia for more than a decade. At the turn of this century, the Old Dominion was a Republican stronghold. But after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, Democrats carried the state in four consecutive presidential elections, picked up both U.S. Senate seats, and eventually held every statewide office. Progressive resistance to Donald Trump’s presidency helped Democrats win both chambers of the state legislature in successive elections in 2017 and 2019.

This year, with Joe Biden in the White House, Republicans exceeded the Democrats in enthusiasm and restored the historical pattern in which Virginia’s off-year elections serve as a wake-up call to the president’s party. “People are exhausted,” Tram Nguyen, a co-executive director of the New Virginia Majority, a progressive group that mobilizes voters from communities of color, told us. With federal and close state elections in alternating years, Virginia has had high-stakes races on an annual basis, testing Democrats’ ability to stay engaged and motivated. “The Republicans have really stepped it up this year,” Nguyen said, noting that she had never seen a GOP campaign do as much outreach to Black, Hispanic, and Asian communities—traditionally the Democratic base.

Turnout surged across the state compared with the last gubernatorial election in 2017, a showing that initially gratified Democrats earlier today. The actual results served as a reminder that higher turnout in off-year elections no longer benefits only Democrats. The party once dominated constituencies that tend to vote less frequently, including young adults, Black and Hispanic voters, and white voters without a college degree. But the shift of white voters with less education toward Republicans, particularly in rural counties, has upended Democrats’ old assumptions about turnout. Trump was able to mobilize and excite those ex-Democratic voters during his campaigns, but whether a Republican who didn’t run explicitly under his banner could turn them out was an open question. Tonight, the answer appeared to be a resounding yes.

For Democrats outside Virginia, the results also provide grim confirmation of what polls have shown for months: Biden is no longer a popular president, and independent voters in particular have, for now, deserted his party. Democrats were also confronting a closer-than-expected race in New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy was trying to hold off Republican Jack Ciattarelli in his bid for a second term. That the Virginia and New Jersey results follow a historical trend offers little comfort, because history also suggests that the Democrats’ slim majorities in Congress are doomed in next year’s midterms. “Republicans will be favored to flip both chambers in 2022,” says Chaz Nuttycombe, the director of CNalysis, an election-forecasting group based in Virginia. He plans to adjust his prediction models accordingly.

Youngkin’s victory is all the more significant given how comfortably Biden won Virginia just a year ago, when his margin over Trump topped 10 points. Key counties saw huge swings rightward, putting Republicans in position to sweep all three statewide seats up for grabs and erase the Democratic majority in the House of Delegates. The outcome may cause Democrats to wonder whether they underestimated the potency of the GOP’s focus on coronavirus-driven school closings and how public schools teach kids about racism and American history.

McAuliffe had been pleading with Democrats in Congress to pass at least part of Biden’s economic agenda before the election to demonstrate that the party could deliver on its promises. But progressives and moderates were still warring in Washington as voters went to the polls, defying a final bid by the president in the days before the election. Whether that failure made a difference is hard to know. If congressional inaction can influence any state race, it’s likely in Virginia, where a significant portion of the Democratic base lives in D.C. suburbs such as Arlington and Fairfax and holds jobs connected—directly or indirectly—to the federal government.

Youngkin’s campaign could serve as a model for how Republicans running in Democratic-leaning areas can navigate the politics of Trump. Youngkin somehow succeeded by splitting the difference on the most polarizing political figure of the era: He neither repudiated nor fully embraced the former president. In ads, the private-equity CEO “flipped eggs, shot basketball, [and] looked goofy,” says Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist who advised outgoing Governor Ralph Northam’s campaign. “That is the pathway for Republicans.” McAuliffe’s attempt to center his final appeal on the specter of Trump failed to match a similar effect in deep-blue California, where Governor Gavin Newsom defeated a recall effort in September after nationalizing the race. Youngkin proved to be a far more difficult foil, however, than did the conservative radio host Larry Elder or the other contenders in California.

Worse news for Democrats is that the coalition of voters that helped Biden win in 2020 may be falling apart. Democrats made enormous progress in America’s suburbs in the past five years, peeling off white, college-educated men and women from the Republican Party. But tonight’s results suggest that this progress was only temporary—maybe Democrats merely rented the suburbs from the GOP, instead of buying them outright.

Democrats “should own the suburbs,” Suhas Subramanyam, a member of the House of Delegates who attended the watch party, told us. “I don’t know why they don’t … Republicans did not run a moderate campaign.” Subramanyam was elected to the Virginia House in 2019. “I’ve grown up politically in a world where Democrats are shoo-ins because of Donald Trump,” he said. But with McAuliffe’s loss, that’s no longer the case. So many swing voters in the suburbs “have dipped their toe in” the Democratic Party, Subramanyam said. “But they’re not ready to jump in.”

Youngkin was a good candidate. He put on a fleece vest and convinced Virginians that voting for him wouldn’t be nearly as bad as supporting Trump, says Nick Gothard, the executive director of the Loudoun County Democratic Committee. Republicans in Virginia felt “a sense of hope for once,” he added, and tonight’s election shows that “they’re not going to go quietly.”

Or maybe the Democrats’ missing ingredient in Virginia this year was simply Trump. When The Atlantic interviewed McAuliffe in 2019, he wasn’t shy about crediting the then-president for a large share of the Democrats’ success in electing Northam to replace him as governor in 2017 and giving the party its state-legislative majorities. “I can’t overstate to you what Trump meant to us,” McAuliffe said at the time. “I’d like to say it was all the great things all of us had done, but it was Trump, Trump, Trump.” That thinking clearly influenced McAuliffe’s strategy in the closing weeks of the race, as he and Biden practically dared Trump to come to Virginia on Youngkin’s behalf. But Trump stayed away. He wasn’t in office, nor was he on the ballot, and the formula that Democrats had used to gain power in Virginia—and, last year, in Washington—couldn’t help them keep it.

Shortly after 9 p.m., after the race had begun to appear unsalvageable for McAuliffe, Savaglio took the stage again. “Loudoun County! How are we feeling tonight?” The crowd, which had thinned considerably by then, was mostly quiet. A handful of attendees offered weak cheers. Loudoun County itself had recorded one of the highest turnout rates in the state. McAuliffe had won here, and every single Democratic delegate in the area had been reelected. The party’s volunteers had done the work. But it wasn’t enough.

Elaine Godfrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic.


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