Virginia is a solid blue state. Since 2008, both Senators have been Democrats and Democratic Presidential tickets have won it easily.
So why did it elect a Republican governor last week?
Former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe ran for a second term, non-consecutive as per Virginia law.
But he was defeated by Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former CEO with no political experience, by a margin of 2.2%.
Republicans also flipped Virginia’s lower house, the House of Delegations, and won the Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General positions.
It was a brutal night for the Virginia Democrats, in a state that had become a safe haven for them.
Virginia used to be another conservative Southern state, but its blue trend started with Mark Warner’s 2001 gubernatorial victory by 5.2%, an upset made possible by division amongst Republicans, Warner’s vast funds and an amazing bluegrass theme song called “Mark Warner Country.”
Though it voted Bush over Kerry in 2004 by 8.2%, in 2006, after a campaign notorious for an incident in which incumbent Republican Senator George Allen called an Indian-American volunteer a slur, Democrat Jim Webb narrowly won by 0.4%. Virginia at this point was a swing state, one either party could claim.
But 2008 a seismic shift forever changed Old Dominion’s politics. Virginia voted for Barack Obama for President by over 6%, and elected Mark Warner to Senate by over 12%, replacing a Republican confusingly named John Warner.
Unlike other 2008 Obama states like North Carolina or Indiana, Virginia remained blue, thanks to the growth of left-leaning NoVa suburbs.
Obama won it by 3.9% in 2012, Hillary by 5.3% in 2016, and Biden by a whopping 10.1%, the best performance for any Democrat since Roosevelt in 1944.
What could have prompted such a rightward shift in just a year?
The easiest culprit to blame is midterm backlash.
Pundits and op-ed writers alike agree that the party in control of the presidency will suffer losses in Congress, state and local races thanks to complacency on their part and a galvanized opposition; see the House losses under Obama in 2010 and Trump in 2018.
This would also explain why New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy won re-election by a paltry 2.6%.
But Murphy was the first Democratic governor to win re-election in New Jersey in decades.
Virginia doesn’t have a history of voting split ticket or electing Chris Christies for governor. Clearly, something more happened in Virginia.
To understand Youngkin’s victory, let us analyze other states.
The most direct comparison would be to certain Northeastern Democratic states, like Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, which have Republican governors.
However, these governors diverge greatly from the median Republican; they are far more socially liberal, and while they claim to be fiscally conservative, they have approved spending plans that would make centrist Democrats blush.
They are certainly far more right-wing than those states’ Senators, which include Sanders, Warren, and Markey, but they are not like Youngkin, who remained moderate but firmly Republican on all key issues.
The best way to understand Youngkin’s win, is to look at two deep red states with Democratic governors: Kansas and Kentucky.
Unlike the more centrist and pro-life Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, Governors Kelly and Beshear won on unabashed Democratic platforms because they targeted their opponents’ Achilles heel: education.
In Kansas, Republican Governor Brownback passed massive tax cuts, the “Kansas Experiment.”
The result was a budgetary disaster, especially for schools.
Many districts closed weeks early or resorted to four-day weeks. Brownback’s 66% disapproval rating sank Republican Chris Kobach’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, leading to Democrat Laura Kelly’s victory.
Andy Beshear’s 2019 defeat of incumbent Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin was also in large part due to Bevin’s attack on teacher’s pensions, resulting in teacher protests and vicious remarks from Bevin.
Youngkin’s chief strategists, Jeff Roe and Kristin Davison, attributed their victory in large part to their attempts to turn Republicans from education defunders to defenders in the eyes of suburban voters.
Youngkin attacked lowered entry requirements for the Thomas Jefferson Magnet School and explicit books in school libraries, defended school choice and accused Democrats of tearing down advanced math programs under the name of equity.
Like many Republicans, Youngkin opposed teaching the nebulously defined “critical race theory”, but his strategists advised him to not focus on it and be branded a right-wing extremist.
Rather, it was merely one brushstroke in a portrait of McAuliffe as someone who didn’t want parents involved in their children’s education. And McAuliffe all but confirmed it during a debate when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Suburbs are where people go to raise families, and Youngkin’s focus on education resonated there.
Combined with McAuliffe’s campaigning rustiness and the waning relevance of Donald Trump and Covid to voters, Democratic turnout lowered and more independents voted Republican.
The Democrats lost Virginia for the same reason they won Kansas and Kentucky: the education issue. And I’m sure McAuliffe lacking a bluegrass theme song didn’t help, either.