The Radically Normal Virginia Election

The state’s voters are not much for kookism.

Who cares which rich dude from the swanky side of Fairfax County gets elected the next governor of Virginia next week? Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are both running as moderates and casting their opponent as too extreme for the proudly politically lukewarm commonwealth. Whoever wins, there isn’t going to be any sea change in the way Virginia is governed.

We know McAuliffe’s claims to moderation are rooted in some fact, given his term as governor from 2014 to 2018. While McAuliffe’s tenure was notable for his battles with Republicans in the state legislature, his approach was in keeping with those of a Clinton Democrat—Bill, not Hillary. There was a strong whiff of corruption and quite a bit of symbolic stand-taking on progressive issues, especially in opposing then-President Donald Trump. And also like his mentor, Clinton, McAuliffe wanted to be seen as a pragmatic deal marker and a pro-business, pro-growth kind of Democrat.

There’s strong evidence for Youngkin’s moderation, too. One does not spend 25 years at the investment behemoth Carlyle Group and rise to become its CEO by being some kind of wacko. This is a world in which a paisley tie can raise eyebrows, so ideological or partisan maniacs would be easy to catch. Youngkin seems very much like the business-casual version of Mitt Romney, who bolted the private equity world to become governor of Massachusetts. Whatever McAuliffe claims about his competitor, the Carlyle Group does not produce radicals. Younkgin’s demeanor is so mellow, it makes the most exaggerated attacks from McAuliffe seem out of place. 

The candidates’ moderation—both real and performative—is understandable. Virginia voters of the past five decades are not much for kookism. Probably the most progressive governor of the era was now-Sen. Tim Kaine, and he’s about as zesty as vegan mayonnaise. Arguably the most conservative has been Jim Gilmore, whom voters punished with a thrashing in his Senate run. Virginia voters like to see the game of political football played between the 40-yard lines, which is where both McAuliffe and Youngkin have spotted the ball. So again, outside of Virginians, who cares which of them serves one term-limited, four-year term as chief executive of the 12th largest state?

Part of the reason for the attention is the absence of other distractions. For political junkies, this is like when sports maniacs became obsessed with Korean baseball during the depths of the coronavirus lockdown. There is a less competitive gubernatorial race in New Jersey, in which Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy seems pretty likely to win re-election. But the Virginia race is quite close. While McAuliffe leads in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls by 2.5 points, the final Monmouth University poll of the race puts it dead even at 48 percent for each candidate. This is the only game to watch in this off-year cycle.

There’s also the fact that Virginia has been an impressive bellwether for the coming year’s midterms. In the past 25 years, the results of Virginia’s gubernatorial elections have foretold the direction of national midterms in all but two contests. For those of us trying to figure out how the 2022 midterms are going to go, this amounts to a sneak peak. 

Relatedly, the election is also seen as a referendum on President Biden, who has been deep in the doldrums of late. If McAuliffe loses, It will be seen as a repudiation of the president by voters in the state he won handily last year. If McAuliffe wins, it will be seen as proof that Biden has a chance for a comeback. These claims will be overblown, of course, but there is no denying that Biden and national Democrats have been dragging down McAuliffe, who initially seemed poised for an easy win.

McAuliffe’s difficulties would also seem to be caused by how unusual his victory would be by Virginia historical standards. He would be the first person to be elected to a second term as governor in nearly 40 years and only the second person ever to accomplish that feat since the Old Dominion’s second constitution barred consecutive terms in 1830. 

A victory by McAuliffe would also mark the first time since 1989 that Democrats won the governorship three times in a row. Political ping-pong has been one of the hallmarks of Virginia politics since the state’s realignment after the demise of the segregationist political machine of Democratic Sen. Harry Byrd Sr.

Indeed, the last time it seemed Virginia had settled into a partisan rut and would be reliably Republican up and down the ballot was at the turn of the millennium. That didn’t work out so hot for the GOP. Democrat Mark Warner won the governor’s mansion two months after the 9/11 attacks in which the Pentagon in Arlington had been a target. The rest of the country was moving rightward, but Virginia juked to the left. A Youngkin win would be a similar disruption to the perceived wisdom that Virginia is now blue and getting bluer. That all explains why the McAuliffe-Youngkin is a) close and b) of national interest, but not why it is important. We could have said many of the same things about the Virginia gubernatorial elections of 2017 and 2009 but neither were as important as this one. 

The difference this time is that Americans are understandably worried about whether we can still engage in basic self-government—whether elections can ever be normal again. As we learn more about the depth and deliberateness of the effort by Trump and his goon squad to steal the 2020 presidential election it's not unreasonable for Americans to wonder about the solidity of our system. And given the punch-drunk partisan ugliness and apocalyptic tone of politics in general these days, it would not have been a surprise if the Virginia race had become a river of rage. 

But that's not what happened. While there have been lots of attack ads, many unfair, this race has been a throwback to the pre-Trump era. The candidates themselves have behaved themselves in person as gentlemen and the issues debated have been often substantive. Rather than framing the race as the next front in America's partisan battle of Armageddon, both candidates have positioned themselves as unifiers. And the Republican, after a little mumble-mouthing, repudiated Trump’s efforts to steal a second term. Both candidates have said they will honor the results of the contest. 

After so many years of norm-mangling, precedent-breaking politics it's nice to see a race that's so refreshingly conventional.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor for The Dispatch.