Republican Glenn Youngkin sailed to victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race against Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday, giving the GOP a successful template for 2022.
Youngkin won with 51 percent of the vote, when the race was called early Wednesday morning by multiple networks. The race was widely viewed as a test of whether the Republican party’s campaign against issues like critical race theory in schools would prove a sound strategy heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
Critical race theory stood at the forefront of Virginia’s election as the race narrowed between the two candidates. Youngkin told voters he would ban CRT from Virginia schools, while McAuliffe called discussion of CRT a “dog whistle” and said parents shouldn’t be telling schools what they teach. Strategists suggested the issue would play a critical role with suburban voters in 2022, which Youngkin’s victory may all but confirm.
Democrats painted Youngkin as an extension of Trump, criticizing him for accepting Trump’s endorsement, while McAuliffe hit his opponent for Trump closing out the campaign with a tele-rally. Youngkin, however, marketed himself to voters as a moderate Republican who, although aligned with Trump, wasn’t a blind supporter of the former president. He’s spoken about election integrity and endorsed audits of voting systems, but stopped short of endorsing Trump’s claim that Biden didn’t properly win the election.
Virginia has trended blue in recent years, and President Joe Biden won the state in 2020 by more than 10 points. However, polls leading into election day showed Youngkin and McAuliffe neck and neck, causing both parties to deploy massive resources to the state.
What, exactly, Youngkin’s win means for Trumpism, and Donald Trump himself, in the coming elections remains unclear, given Youngkin’s relative distance from the former president.
Youngkin’s goal was to court Trump’s base while also appealing to more moderate suburban voters who historically have voted for Democrats. Given that Youngkin tried to distance himself from Trump at times, Michael Hopkins, senior vice president of Firehouse Strategies, told Newsweek that his victory showed it was done “in spite of Trump not because of him.”
“Trump has been effective at both launching and torpedoing candidates over the years. If Youngkin wins, it will be in part because of the national winds against Democrats and in part because Trump energized the base for him,” Michael Gordon, a Democratic strategist, told Newsweek.
Youngkin’s campaign will likely serve as a lesson for Republicans in other swing states, energizing the party and boosting donations ahead of the midterms. Hopkins also suspected it will make it more likely that Trump runs for president in 2024.
Trump’s been teasing a run since leaving office and polls high on a list of potential contenders. His involvement in Youngkin’s campaign gives him another endorsement to add to his winning record and if Republicans win in the midterms, which history says is likely, it shows Trump could mount a legitimate run for president once again, according to Hopkins.
Tuesday’s election came amid a downward turn in Biden’s polling numbers and his approval is lower than almost every president for the last 70 years at this point in their terms, except for Trump. Since midterms are often a referendum on the president, Biden’s drop in polling has raised concerns about Democrats’ ability to keep control of Congress.
“Unless Biden can turn around his sliding poll numbers, this race will be a harbinger for what will happen in the midterms next year. A Youngkin victory will send shivers up the spine of every Democrat in a genuinely contested race,” Gordon said.
While eyes were on Virginia ahead of the gubernatorial race, experts cautioned against putting too much weight into it as a bellwether.