Democrats outside Virginia apparently know something that Democrats inside Virginia don’t. Even before the networks had called Tuesday’s election, in which Republicans reclaimed all three statewide offices and the House of Delegates in a state that most political savants had assumed was permanently blue, a consensus explanation had already taken hold on the left. It was racism, of course.
From the perplexed primetime anchors of MSNBC to the know-it-all guardians of blue check Twitter, national progressives who couldn’t tell the difference between a Hoo and a Hokie were suddenly experts on the Virginia suburbs, explaining confidently that Glenn Youngkin had dog-whistled Critical Race Theory all the way to victory, persuading a bunch of racist Karens in the suburbs that a fake Fox News threat was coming for their precious Kaylas and Jaydens in the curricula of their treasured public schools. “This country loves white supremacy,” Jemele Hill tweeted when the results came in. “You damn Karens are killing America!,” was the headline from Wajahat Ali at the Daily Beast, a take published before all precincts had finished reporting. Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC said Youngkin “laundered Trump’s really disgusting flagrant racism, he’s wrapped it in education.” These observations were pegged to early exit polls showing that Youngkin won suburban voters, white women and families with children—all subgroups of swing voters that voted for Joe Biden in 2020, now deemed bigots in 2021.
Like a lot of sophomoric political analysis, these takes were grounded in a kernel of truth but delivered without even a whiff of nuance or texture, all with the volume cranked up to 11. And absent from the monsoon of hot takes were the voices of actual Virginia Democrats who were closest to the action, people like Jay Jones, a member of the House of Delegates who spent the final hours of election day at a precinct in a mostly Black neighborhood of Virginia Beach, helping gin up last minute votes for his fellow delegate Alex Askew in the the commonwealth’s swingy 85th District. Moments before the polls closed, he saw a car pull up, and as he described it, saw two white women, not Terry McAuliffe voters, literally sprint out of their vehicle into the voting location before polls closed, ignoring Jones as he tried to hand them Democratic campaign lit. “I’ve never seen anything like before that at a precinct,” Jones told me. “It’s one thing to get people pissed off, it’s another to get them to go vote. Republicans got low propensity folks to vote. And they had Trump-level turnout not just in rural areas, but in most areas. And I’m not sure how they did it.”
National pundits have settled on their answer. But Jones and other Democrats in Virginia are still trying to make sense of why they lost—and why Tuesday’s election felt both similar and different to past off-year gubernatorial elections, which typically favor the party out of power in Washington. In that sense, this year was no different. For four decades, the party in control of the White House has lost the Virginia governor’s mansion the following year. The only exception came in 2013, when McAuliffe won by just 2.5 points against culture warrior Ken Cuccinelli, with an assist from a third-party libertarian on the ballot. “This is maybe where the government teacher in me comes in, but I think the first takeaway is to not, like, have this big takeaway,” said Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Delegate who narrowly won his re-election race in suburban Henrico County outside of Richmond. “What I mean by that, is that since the 80s or 90s, we have constantly been swinging back and forth both at the national and state level. We really are a purple state.”
The national environment—summed up by Biden’s dismal approval ratings—was clearly a factor. That was the obvious takeaway for anyone bothering to look up I-95 at New Jersey, where education and critical race theory were not signature issues in the governor’s race, but where Gov. Phil Murphy barely eked out re-election against his Republican opponent, even though polls showed him with an 8-point lead heading into Tuesday. Plenty of Democrats blame their dismal approval ratings on the party’s failure to pass their “Build Back Better” agenda and the infrastructure bill. That was certainly the message of Democratic National Committee talking points that went out to surrogates after McAuliffe’s loss, a copy of which I obtained. They barely mentioned McAuliffe at all, chalking up his loss to Virginia’s historic off-year voting patterns and moving right along. Instead, the D.N.C. put the focus on Biden’s bills, saying that Democrats can win if they pass his agenda and sell the popular elements of it to voters. “Now more than ever, it is urgent that we pass President Biden’s extremely popular Build Back Better agenda,” the talking points read. “And then spend every single day over the next year, making the case directly to each and every voter on how Democrats are delivering for them.” That’s … pretty much it.
But even if both bills had passed before Tuesday, it’s doubtful that a pair of long-tail spending packages—the consequences of which would show up in paychecks, health benefits and repaired highways many months and years from now—would have aided Democrats in the commonwealth. As it did nationally, Biden’s approval rating in Virginia began to tilt downward just before the ugly withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. When that happened, the Youngkin-McAuliffe race immediately grew tighter. Biden’s bad numbers were a drag not just on McAuliffe but on Democrats up and down the ballot. A Republican source working on competitive House of Delegates races provided me with their final polling track from 11 competitive districts in the last three days before the election. Biden’s approval rating across those districts was just 37 percent, according to the polling, and his disapproval was a sky-high 58 percent—higher than Donald Trump’s statewide 55 percent disapproval in Virginia exit polls. Republicans won seven of those 11 seats, giving them control of the House of Delegates. If Biden’s numbers in competitive districts were that bad in Virginia, they’re certainly not much better in 2022 battleground congressional districts across the country.
“It was a perfect storm,” Jones told me. “The Biden headwind is real. Republican enthusiasm was real. And the education message was good for them.” Jones said, too, that McAuliffe’s relentless attempts to link Youngkin to Trump didn’t register with swing voters, in part because a de-platformed, out-of-office Trump isn’t currently at the top of voters’ minds. “When you don’t see Trump every day, it’s harder to make that connection,” he told me. But even as swing voters drifted to Youngkin, Democrats did a respectable job of turning out their base. McAuliffe ran 200,000 votes ahead of Ralph Northam four years earlier, when Democrats won the Virginia governor’s mansion in dominant fashion—at the time, the first electoral brushback pitch against President Trump and a sign of a coming Democratic wave in 2018. In some counties, McAuliffe reached almost presidential level turnout. It’s just that Republican turnout was even higher. In firmly-Republican southwest Virginia, turnout grew by a remarkable 31 percent compared to the 2017 race.
That white hot G.O.P. enthusiasm—the kind witnessed by Jones at that precinct in Virginia Beach—undermined Democratic faith in the idea that high turnout elections automatically benefit their party, with more people of color and young voters casting ballots. This myth should have been blown apart by the experience of Florida in 2016, when early turnout in key Florida counties looked good for Hillary Clinton, only to be swamped by places like Pensacola and Panama City, when even higher turnout rates in red corners of the state won the state for Trump. I tweeted on Tuesday that these days, high voter turnout doesn’t necessarily favor Democrats, and my replies were full of smarty-pants liberals telling me I was wrong. Oops. In the post-Trump era of always-on culture wars and identity politics, negative partisanship is a more powerful factor than any policy idea or campaign slogan. That’s especially true for the party out of power. In the 2017 race, Northam’s vote share of 54 percent was remarkably close to Trump’s national disapproval rating of 56 percent. That pattern showed up again on Tuesday: Youngkin came in at 50.8 percent—almost a mirror image of Biden’s 50.4 percent disapproval rating.
It confounds Democrats that Republicans were foaming at the mouth to vote like they did in 2016 and 2020, even though Trump wasn’t even on the ballot. Youngkin, a political newcomer who barely had a message one month ago, was. And he won almost as many votes (1.6 million) as Trump (1.9 million)—a remarkable accomplishment for an off-off-year gubernatorial race in a state thought to be firmly blue. One of the more astute takes on Election Night came from Gabriel Debenedetti in New York magazine, who wrote that Virginia might reflect “a broader shift away from traditions of low engagement in off-year elections, and toward an all-in-all-the-time political culture.” That sentiment sounded familiar to VanValkenburg as he knocked on doors across Henrico during his campaign. “My big takeaway from this year is that the doors felt more tribal than ever,” he told me. “Right away, people went straight to the politics, before they went to the issues. That was pretty consistent from March to November. I know tribalism has been around since the 90s, but in the last few years, it’s really been sharpened.”
Here’s something else that should worry Democrats heading into next year: It might be considered racist in the cable news green rooms of 30 Rock, but running on “parental rights” was a devastatingly effective strategy for Republicans in the suburbs. When McAuliffe blurted out in a September debate that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Youngkin’s campaign found their issue. In early October, Youngkin strategist Jeff Roe told me that the parents line was “a unicorn hit” that became the centerpiece of their campaign message. “It motivated our base, confused theirs and gave independents something to pay attention to,” he told me. “Education”—typically an issue that favors Democrats—became a blank canvas onto which voters could project their anxiety of choice. Critical Race Theory was no doubt one of those. Youngkin never mentioned it in a television ad, but he did on the campaign trail, and fears about “C.R.T.” being introduced in public schools circulated like wildfire for months, on Fox News and in the cesspool of Facebook groups.
Angry moms and dads began showing up at school board meetings in Loudoun County and Virginia Beach, demanding that their children not be force-fed an anti-racist agenda that really only shows up in graduate school syllabi. Most of these parents were white, but not all of them were. And many more parents who didn’t show up at school board meetings showed up to vote, supporting Youngkin on “education,” whatever that meant to them in the fog of the campaign. Were they scared of Critical Race Theory? Did they want to remove lascivious books from school libraries? Did they read something on Facebook about schools getting rid of AP classes in the name of equity? Or were parents frustrated after a year of pandemic home-schooling and mixed-messages from school administrators? A lot of parents, it turns out, do want a voice: Exit polls found that voters with children under 18 went for Youngkin, and 84 percent of Virginia voters said parents should have “some” or “a lot” of say in what their schools teach children. But throughout the fall, poindexter Democrats fought back with only a smug Fact Check rejoinder—“Critical Race Theory isn’t being taught in Virginia schools! Four Pinocchios!”—rather than lending parents a sympathetic ear. McAuliffe’s dumb sound bite certainly plugged right in to phony right-wing fears, motivating the Republican base. But it wasn’t just a fake right-wing controversy. It rubbed plenty of voters the wrong way—even people who don’t watch Tucker Carlson.
“What is getting lost in the rush to say ‘C.R.T. isn’t even taught in Virginia’ is the very real frustration that exists with Virginia schools because of their continued inability to navigate the pandemic,” said Brian Bald, a director of Project Management at Capital One in Richmond. Along with his wife Louise, Bald is a Democrat who voted for McAuliffe and raised money for Democratic candidates in the past. But he’s also a father who had to deal with the headaches of home-schooling during the pandemic, and said he knows several people who voted for Biden and flipped to Youngkin on Tuesday. “Most moms in the suburbs don’t know anything about C.R.T., but they do know they want to be heard when it comes to entire classes and buses of kids being regularly out on quarantine with no option for their kids to learn for two weeks. Working parents are stuck, but the school system treats it as their problem to figure out.”
The weekend before Election Day, Jay Jones was canvassing in Loudoun County, a sprawling exurb outside Washington, D.C., and heard similar gripes from voters. “You could feel it,” he said. “The ‘parents matter’ thing was potent. I don’t have children, but I talked to plenty of Democratic parents. And they said when you are working and have kids at home, and you hear that clip of Terry, which was weaponized, well … it worked.” Voters who named education as their top issue broke for a Republican for the first time anyone I talked to could remember. In September, Cassie Wolfe, a high school friend of mine in Henrico who votes Democrat and has two children in elementary school, texted me about the preponderance of Youngkin signs showing up in her neighborhood. She wondered if these were shy Trump voters who felt more comfortable putting a sign in their yard for Youngkin, who, it’s been said ad nauseam, looks like a dad in a fleece vest you’d see picking up some beers at Hardywood Brewery on his way home from soccer practice. Or, Wolfe asked me, were these Biden-Youngkin voters? I floated that idea to some professional Democrats, who expressed more than a little skepticism that a suburban voter in Virginia could vote for Biden and then Youngkin just one year later.
A few weeks later, Wolfe texted me in a fury, saying she had talked to other moms who were going to vote for Youngkin because they heard Virginia public school administrators were considering eliminating advanced placement math classes, citing unequal minority representation. That isn’t true—Four Pinocchios!—but the rumor was spooky enough to send those moms Youngkin’s way. Are these women Karens? Maybe. But they also vote, sometimes for Democrats and sometimes for Republicans. For people who need a remedial course in politics, they’re also called swing voters. They exist, and Democrats need an actual message to reach them.
Despite all the noise about Critical Race Theory, the top issue in Virginia exit polls wasn’t education. It was the economy. The economy is rocky for many, with labor shortages, high gas prices and a flimsy social safety net. There are also bright spots: Falling unemployment, rising wages, a pandemic fading into the rearview. Democrats, though, haven’t been selling those stories very well. McAuliffe wasn’t. Nor is Biden right now. “The people Democrats struggled to win were the ones paying the least attention to politics and most attention to their pocketbooks,’ said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic campaign operative in Richmond. “The past doesn’t have to be prologue in 2022, but that means showing people an economic story that meets their economic pain point and brings down costs for them. The question voters ask themselves isn’t about Trump or about critical race theory. Those are just data points. The question voters ask is ‘who’s for me’. That’s the one we have to answer.”
Maybe. But that raises another thorny question for politics after Trump. Which party wields more power today? The one that looks out for your pocketbook, or the one that looks out for your culture?