Commentary

So What Just Happened? An Evaluation of This Month’s Election Results

By David Toscano

As Democrats scramble to learn the lessons of the recent election, here are a few to consider:

  1. State policies matter—so talk about them. Virginia Democrats pushed and passed popular initiatives—Medicaid expansion, the ERA, minimum wage increases, gun safety measures, and, despite the rhetoric of “defund the police,” enhanced funding for law enforcement. Somehow, these got lost. Former Governor McAuliffe started his campaign heralding his bold plan for historic investments in education. That too was lost, as the campaign appeared overly fixated on Trump and his politics of division. Some voters did not focus on what Democrats were doing in Richmond—and were not sure what could happen in another McAuliffe administration. Others were angry with what Democrats were not doing in Washington. They cared little for internecine party scrabbles between progressives and moderates. They wanted results.
  2. Schools and parents matter. Mr. Youngkin seized on Mr. McAuliffe’s remark that he didn’t “believe parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” and used it to undermine the former governor’s promise to make “historic” investments in education and teacher salaries. Into the fall, polls showed a significant increase in the percentage of voters who viewed education as their top issue, rising from 15 percent in September to 24 percent in late October. Election-day exit polling reported that a supermajority of Virginia voters believed parents should have a voice in what schools teach their children. Youngkin’s positioning on the issue undermined a key element of the Democratic coalition — suburban women. Two counties where Democrats had gained substantially in recent years illustrate the change. In Loudoun County, McAuliffe’s 11-point win paled in comparison to Biden’s 25-point margin a year ago. Similarly, Democrats won Chesterfield by 7 points in 2020, only to lose it by 11 this year. Finally, McAuliffe dramatically underperformed with women.
  3. We remain divided into our respective political tribes. There was little ticket-splitting in Virginia, and that resulted in Democratic losses in close races up and down the ticket. Even with the massive Republican turnout, a swing of several hundred votes in three House races would have preserved Democratic control of that body. Youngkin’s victory was neither a landslide nor a mandate. If it had occurred 10 years ago, it would have appeared to be just another Republican win. But the formerly reliable red state has changed in the last two decades — and a GOP win is therefore perceived as a disruptive outlier.
  4. Voting rights matter. Virginia Democrats made voting much easier, instituting no-excuse early voting for 45 days prior to the election. It is one reason why the Commonwealth saw the largest turnout for a governor’s race in recent history — by a lot. Much of the early vote came from reliably red areas across the state. Even as McAuliffe won 600,000 more votes than in 2013 and 200,000 more than Northam’s total in 2017, Republican turnout overwhelmed the Democrats, especially in traditionally red areas, where some increases were greater than 40 percent..
  5. Diversity is not Destiny. The change in the demographic mix in Virginia has been thought to be a major cause of Democratic victories in 14 of the last 21 statewide elections, wins in every presidential contest since Obama in 2008, and the election of two Democratic U.S. Senators. But this year, it was not decisive. Youngkin made inroads in the African American and Hispanic communities. Moreover, the electorate included more white voters than 2020. White Virginians accounted for 74 percent of voters, up from 67 percent last year. And a majority of them voted for Youngkin.
  6. Trump was a factor, but not in the way that was expected. Youngkin was masterful in saying enough to mobilize Trump voters while avoiding direct links to the former President. McAuliffe’s constant references to Trump may have motivated some voters to reprise their 2020 vote, but each election, especially in the states, is unique. By 2021, some of the anti-Trump energy so critical to the success of Virginia Democrats in 2019 and 2020 had dissipated, and McAuliffe’s efforts to link his opponent to the former President may have unintentionally fueled a perception that he was the divisive candidate who had little to say about state issues. In fact, exit polls showed that independents, many of whom remain extremely uncomfortable with Trump, broke for Youngkin.
    Despite concerns that a Republican governorship will mean the rollback of key Democratic initiatives, the Senate, barring death or defection, remains under Democratic control until at least 2023. That should prevent the Commonwealth from moving too quickly in a conservative direction. But the Governor’s powers are extensive, and his ability to bring change, either through appointments, executive action, or the budget cannot be overlooked.

Toscano is the former minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates