The Sweep: The Takeaway From Youngkin’s Win in Virginia

Plus, how the pandemic shaped the election.

The Facts

Virginia

  • Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe 51 percent-to 49 percent.

  • Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears has a fantastic name and will be the first woman to hold the job. She’s a Jamaican immigrant, former Marine, and was the director of a Salvation Army homeless shelter prior to entering politics. 

  • Republicans also appear to have won the six seats they needed to flip the Virginia House of Delegates.

New Jersey

  • Incumbent Gov. Philip Murphy narrowly beat Republican Jack Ciattarelli. Joe Biden won New Jersey, America’s most suburban state, by 16 points a year ago.

  • Senate President Steve Sweeney—a Democrat who’s led the upper house for 12 years and is the second most powerful official in New Jersey government—appears to have lost his seat to Republican Edward Durr—a truck driver who brags about spending $153 on his race.

Buffalo

  • The Democratic socialist India Walton lost to write-in candidate and current Democratic Mayor Byron Brown by as much as 16 points.

Minneapolis

  • The incumbent mayor, Jacob Frey, looks like he will be reelected in the city’s ranked choice voting election. After George Floyd’s murder last summer, Frey was jeered when he refused to commit to abolishing the police department.

  • Prop 2, which would have given “the city council oversight of a new Department of Public Safety and done away with a requirement to employ a minimum number of police officers tied to the city's population,” failed.

Austin

  • There was also a ballot measure in Austin that was billed as a “fund the police” vote. The measure would have forced the city to hire hundreds of new police officers. It was resoundingly defeated—68 percent to-32 percent.

Seattle

  • Republican Ann Davison beat Democrat and police abolitionist Nicole Thomas-Kennedy for city attorney, 58 percent to 41 percent.

Ohio

  • There were two special elections for congressional seats in Ohio, and as predicted, neither one flipped. 

The Questions

Did depressed turnout among the Democratic base cost Terry McAuliffe the race?

Virginia had record voter turnout for an off-year election, which to me means that it’s more likely that at least some people who voted for Biden last year switched their vote to Youngkin this year. But that’s not a guarantee. Overall, 3.3 million people voted in Virginia yesterday, compared to 4.3 million in 2020. So it is certainly possible that a larger percentage of Trump voters voted than Biden voters and there were no Biden-Youngkin voters. The reason I think that’s not likely is because there are a lot of habitual voters in races like this; part of their self-identity is that they are the  kind of people who vote in an off-cycle election. So we can assume that the 2.5 million people who voted in 2017—when Gov. Northam won by 9 points—probably voted again. And then we’re trying to figure out who the other 800,000 were. 

So let’s take Fairfax County, which holds 13 percent of the state’s voting population—the largest by far and heavily Democratic. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam won by 37 points. In 2020, Biden won by 41 points. This time around, McAuliffe won only by 30. Breaking it down even more, the 2021 vote was 73 percent of the 2020 vote total in this county. But for Youngkin to win with only Trump voters, he would have needed to get 90 percent of the Trump vote from 2020 to reach his vote totals in Fairfax County. Is it mathematically possible for that to happen? Yes. Is it likely that Youngkin closed the gap in Fairfax County without Biden-Youngkin voters? No.

There is also some exit polling that shows the electorate as a whole was older and whiter than 2020—and, of course, these are exit polls that have not been adjusted and shouldn’t be used for any large scale “takes” yet—but even so, that would still only be as a percentage of the electorate. So first, I’d want to see the raw vote totals in 2020 and compare this year to what the normal drop-off on voters of color is between presidential years and these gubernatorial races like in 2017—ie make sure they aren’t just more likely to be lower propensity voters in these cycles. 

On the flip side, this should put to bed once and for all the notion that high turnout always favors Democrats and that Republicans’ pursuit of state voting restrictions helps them win elections. 

How big a factor was critical race theory?

Democrats today are arguing: Youngkin was elected on a lie. He ran against critical race theory and CRT isn’t even part of Virginia schools’ curriculum. There’s a few problems here. First, the issue polling that I’ve seen—and you already know how I feel about issue polling—just asked about “education.” Education rocketed to the top of vote-deciding issues, just after the economy. But “education” can mean a lot of things to different people, obviously. 

There’s no question that a lot of parents would tell you they are concerned about CRT being taught in schools. But this is a little like the “defund the police” slogan. They don’t literally mean that their second graders are being taught “to view race and white supremacy as an intersectional social construct.” They mean that their kids are being taught things about race, racism, and it’s role in American history that they don’t like. I heard one parent, for example, say that they feared their child was being taught that equality of outcome was more important than equality of opportunity. You can agree or disagree as to whether that is good or bad or right or wrong as a normative matter, but as a descriptive matter, it is what some voters meant when they said education as an important issue to them. 

Second, the public schools in Fairfax County did not open for full-time, in-person learning for the 2020-2021 school year. Not the spring after the pandemic. The whole next year. It was one of the last districts in the country to reopen even after teachers in the state got priority during the vaccine rollout. It meant a lot of parents—mostly mothers—in the state couldn’t go back to work. A lot of families had to scramble to find a way to pay for private school. In the meantime, school boards were meeting to rename schools named after George Mason and Thomas Jefferson but not working to reopen the schools. And because it was so contrary to the science we knew at the time, a lot of folks were just angry about it. This also is what some meant by education. 

That leaves a lot of homes that are down to one income while food prices are going up precipitously, and a ton of moms who just finished a year overseeing their kid’s Zoom learning only to find that they aren’t comfortable with what their child is being taught. And what does Terry McAuliffe say? “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Former President Obama dismissed their concerns, saying “we don't have time to waste on phony culture wars or fake outrage.” And Joe Biden implied that anyone concerned is just using racist “dog whistles.” Then the night before the election, McAuliffe’s chosen speaker for his closing argument? Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. 

Critical race theory wasn’t irrelevant to this race. And it was a dog whistle to a lot of parents. But it’s not obvious to me that the whistle was about race or even race-based curriculum. For a lot of parents, they heard McAuliffe using shorthand for 18 months of pent-up frustration with a public school system that didn’t seem to care about their kids and a candidate who then told the parents he didn’t care about them either. 

Does this mean Republicans can win without Trump?

Clearly, Glenn Youngkin kept Donald Trump at bay and he got 10 percent more of the vote in the state than Trump did just a year ago. So ... Republicans just need to stay away from Trump, right? It’s not that easy, I’m afraid. 

On the one hand, there’s no question that Youngkin found a way to motivate Trump voters without Trump. 

On the other hand, Trump largely stayed out of the campaign. He endorsed Youngkin, but otherwise didn’t say much about the race one way or the other. And now—although he has claimed credit for Youngkin’s win—Trump isn’t going to get credit for it. And, in fact, he’s going to see a lot of media saying that no Trump is the very reason Youngkin won. Trump ain’t gonna like that. 

So for 2022, will Trump allow himself to be a non-factor in all those open Senate seats Republicans have to defend—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, maybe Wisconsin? Unlikely. And if Trump had told his voters that Youngkin was playing them for fools or that Youngkin had refused to allow him to come to Virginia or that Youngkin was just another RINO like Romney, do you think they would have supported Youngkin in the numbers they did on Tuesday? 

Youngkin proved Republicans can win without embracing Trump, but only if Trump agrees.

Does this mean Republicans will win the House and Senate in 2022?

Candidates matter. Youngkin became the candidate after a nominating convention for state party diehards used ranked-choice balloting to pick among seven contenders. And they did it this way on purpose to ensure that “a crazy” didn’t tank their chances of winning the race. Jonah is more in favor of cigar smoke-filled back rooms with party bosses than I am—the big difference, I think, being how many times our butts would be touched if we were ever invited into such a room. But clearly picking an electable candidate is important. And a political party willing to give serious thought to what process is most likely to yield the most electable candidate is going to have an advantage in midterm elections. 

Which is all to say, no, I don’t think Virginia is proof that the Senate and House will flip. It’s quite likely that the House does, in my view. But I think the primaries for these Senate seats are going to dictate a lot about what it means to have a winnable race for either party.

It’s the Pandemic, Stupid

Much has rightly been said about the specific reasons that Democrats lost the Virginia governorship. Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin ran a disciplined, energetic campaign. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe *ahem* did not. Gasoline and food prices are stratospheric. Former President Donald Trump was willing to mostly stay out of it. President Biden was too willing to get into it. And on and on and on …

All true, but not sufficient. Look down-ballot in Virginia and see that Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general ran almost identically well as Youngkin. But that could still be driven by Virginia-specific issues. So look north to New Jersey where the incumbent Democratic governor held on by the narrowest of margins against a little-known, underfunded Republican challenger. Cross the Delaware River to Pennsylvania and you’ll find a solid Republican win in a brutally contested statewide supreme court race. Look out to Minneapolis where a measure to abolish the city’s police department was soundly defeated.

Much of this can be explained by the pendular red-blue-red-blue rhythm of American politics. Voters like divided power, or at least dislike one-party control. The results can also be explained by the very different electorates of these rare, odd-year contests.

Though turnout was unusually large by historical comparison, these are still contests for high-propensity voters who tend to be whiter and richer than is typical of the larger electorate in a presidential year. In Virginia in 2020, exit polling showed an electorate that was 67 percent white. This week it was 73 percent white.

So, a narrow electorate, the absence of Trump, a longstanding preference against the party in power, good candidates, and a favorable issue set can explain a great deal about the revenge of the Republicans this week. But not all of it. The swing of a dozen or so points toward Republicans in both Virginia and New Jersey compared to four years ago has to be understood in the context of the pandemic.

While Virginia and New Jersey voters were talking about different subsets of coronavirus policy, they were still talking about coronavirus policy just the same. In New Jersey it took the form of a fight over mask mandates and other strict rules favored by Gov. Phil Murphy. In Virginia, it was outrage at the restrictive pandemic policies of the commonwealth’s public schools under a Democratic administration. There are different contours, but this week’s results should all be understood through the lens of the pandemic and the Democrats’ struggles to find the right approach.

Democrats at the start far better grasped than Republicans not only the magnitude of the pandemic but the level of concern Americans have had about it. Republican efforts to downplay the severity of the risk and then their boneheaded opposition to reasonable protections was worse than tone deaf. But over time, Democrats came too much to believe that 2020 was a moment of radical transformation—that the pandemic had opened up a portal to the future. Just listen to Democratic lawmakers still talk about issues ranging from social justice to climate change to paid family leave. Politicians in both parties are prone to catastrophizing to scare voters and donors, but Democrats have been especially prone to treating “this moment” as a historical inflection point.

I’m sure it will be, but probably not in ways that we can fully anticipate. And certainly not in one ideological direction. What we do know is that the persuadable voters who get to decide elections are probably not much interested in teleporting to the progressive future. They are likely interested in finding some calmer, more normal way to live. They are likely interested in living as good of a life as they can right now. While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly changed the way Americans see each other, themselves, their politics, their work, their entertainments, and much more. While Republicans have very often proven unserious about the way to deal with the pandemic, Democrats such as Murphy have too often appeared to kind of like the idea of not just the restrictions themselves but the ways in which the present crisis might be a moment to skip ahead a few chapters to what they assume will be a progressive future.

Democratic efforts to use the calamity of the financial panic of 2008 and ensuing recession to remake major swaths of American life ended up much the same way. When voters were still overwhelmingly worried about jobs and the economy, Democrats pivoted to universal health insurance. When Republicans racked up wins in Virginia and New Jersey, they stayed at it. When a Republican won a special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, they passed the massive bill on a procedural maneuver anyway. The result in the following midterms was as predictable as it was dire for Democrats.

But the blue team would not have needed to look even that far back. The split decision in the 2020 election sent a clear message: While voters were happy to dump Trump, they weren’t giving Democrats the green light for wholesale change on issues like policing or climate change. Biden had no coattails. Indeed, the opposite. Republicans picked up two more statehouse chambers, an additional governor’s mansion, seats in the House of Representatives and, had it not been for Trump’s antic carnival of grifters and kooks ahead of the Georgia runoff, would have held the Senate.

Voters have been speaking in a clear voice to Democrats about the need to focus on the work that is in front of them and leave radical transformations aside. Americans obviously want these exhaustingly extraordinary times to end and give way to a period of calm. That’s where Biden started—“shots in arms and money in pockets”—but he and his party got lost along the way. To reframe the 2022 midterms, Democrats will have to get back to treating pandemic as something to escape, not to maximize.