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On The Trail: Revenge of the swing voter

A record number of Virginia voters turned out to cast ballots in Tuesday’s elections, delivering a sharp rebuke to Democrats — and offering Republicans a preview of a path back to power ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Those voters chose Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R), a former Carlyle Group chief executive who positioned himself alternatively as a nonthreatening suburban dad or a raging culture warrior, over former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who tried to paint his rival as Donald Trump’s clone.

The election proved that, even in the midst of partisan polarization that has riven the nation, there are still many voters who are willing to flip between the two major political parties. The death of the swing voter, Virginia showed, has been greatly exaggerated.

Both Democrats and Republicans mobilized their voters. More than 3.3 million Virginians showed up to vote, either early or on Election Day itself, a surprisingly strong turnout for an off-year election. Youngkin, making his first run for public office, won more votes than any of the 74 governors who came before him. McAuliffe won more than half a million more votes than he did in the 2013 race that he won.

But Youngkin’s win shows there are plenty of voters willing to swing between the two major parties — and that, even in an age of polarized politics, persuasion matters just as much as mobilization.

Tuesday’s results will have a thousand parents: President Biden’s low approval ratings, lingering anger over restrictions imposed during the pandemic, a revival of the culture wars spurred by Republicans who made spurious claims about critical race theory in the classroom, and the traditional voter backlash against an incumbent president in his first year in office all played some role in Youngkin’s victory and McAuliffe’s defeat.

Trump, desperate to maintain his iron grip on the Republican Party, was among the first to claim credit for the red tide washing over the Old Dominion — even though his involvement, to Youngkin’s relief, was limited to a few phoned-in appearances.

But Youngkin’s victory represented a marked improvement over the coalition that Trump built: Independents broke for Youngkin by 9 points, a year after backing Biden by 19. Men favored Youngkin by 12 points, after narrowly backing Biden. Voters in the all-important suburbs supported Youngkin by 6 points, a year removed from backing Biden by 8.

Voters listed the economy, education and taxes as the most important issues facing the commonwealth; they favored Youngkin over McAuliffe on all three issues.

Youngkin even improved on Trump’s performance in what is becoming the core of the Republican Party’s base: Trump beat Biden by 24 points among white voters who had not attained a college degree; Youngkin won those voters by 52 points. Trump carried rural Virginia by just 6 points, a margin Youngkin stretched to 28.

In the course of four years, Virginia voters swung about 11 percentage points — delivering Youngkin a 2-point win after voting for Gov. Ralph Northam (D) by a 9-point margin in 2017. That swing is far less dramatic than the tidal wave that swept Republican Bob McDonnell into office by a 17-point margin four years after Democrat Tim Kaine won the governorship by almost 6 points. 

But Youngkin’s victory, contrasted with the results four years ago and even last year’s presidential contest, shows where the GOP can improve without Trump on the ticket. 

Youngkin ran up the score in the Shenandoah and southwest Virginia, ancestral Democratic regions that now belong firmly to the GOP. He improved over Trump in suburban Loudoun, Chesterfield and Henrico counties, albeit by only a small margin. And he won in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake County, areas where Republicans have lost by narrow margins in recent years.

The results will cast a pall over Democrats in Washington, where they cling to the slimmest of majorities in the House of Representatives — a majority based on previous victories in districts like those held by Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton, moderate Democrats who captured suburban and exurban districts previously held by Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections.

Those suburban Democrats now have a year to hone their own appeal to voters, while Republicans try to maintain Youngkin’s coalition to win back control of Congress. Though the outlook is bleak for Democrats today, Virginia voters proved once again that no coalition is forever, no majority is permanent — and nothing, not even a decades-long trend of liberalizing politics in what still amounts to a blue state, is forever.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Donald Trump Elaine Luria Jennifer Wexton Joe Biden Tim Kaine Virginia

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