10 takeaways from Virginia’s election
While there is both good news and bad news for Democrats in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, there are real takeaways that Democrats must learn from if the party wants to avoid political disaster in next year’s midterms.
1. Keep it simple, stupid
Republican Glenn Youngkin had a sharp and succinct message: I’m new, I’m on your side, and I’ll make a difference.
From early advertising showing him as an affable family man, he consistently painted himself as the outsider, campaigning from day one until the last hour on lower taxes, changes to education with greater parent involvement, and a better economy.
With exit polls signaling that the economy was top of mind for voters more than any other issue, Democrats need a stronger campaign message that focuses on kitchen-table issues.
2. All politics is local
While Democrat Terry McAuliffe leaned on national figures to energize his base, Youngkin relished in his role as Lone Ranger, insisting the election was about Virginians. He used compelling examples of how he would make a difference in people’s everyday lives, such as putting a human voice on the phone at the Department of Motor Vehicle. He ran a localized campaign, while McAuliffe relentlessly tried to make it about former President Trump, even though he wasn’t on the ballot. If Trump is not on the ballot in 2024, there is even more reason for Democrats to have a clear, positive message.
3. Not really about Biden or Trump
The former president never set foot in the state, but Youngkin nimbly walked the tightrope between energizing the MAGA base and attracting independent voters. Good news for Democrats: not many Republican candidates are skilled, self-funded or savvy enough to replicate this model.
While McAuliffe welcomed Biden’s support, the president’s slumping poll numbers certainly didn’t help. This election was about Virginia, but good luck to Republicans when Trump inserts himself into more 2022 congressional races.
4. Show me the money
Both candidates raised record amounts of donations, and both were already multimillionaires. Yet, for Youngkin, being able to bombard the airwaves uncontested for weeks with ads defining himself before the Democrats held their primary was key. This will be difficult for Republican candidates to replicate in hotly contested races next year.
5. Democrats better go to school
Democrats don’t appear to have a counter to the culture wars that Republicans were able to deploy in Virginia. This resulted in white, non-college educated voters, as well as independents, flocking to Youngkin. He aggressively campaigned on education issues, and as a result made significant inroads in the heavily Democratic counties of Fairfax (35 percent compared to Trump’s 28 percent in 2020) and Loudoun (44 percent to Trump’s 37 percent). Democrats must develop direct and understandable policy proposals on education and be proactive on the culture war attacks. Democrats will lose if the choice is “spend more money” versus “parental involvement.”
6. Democrats would have won with a Democratic Congress passing legislation before the election
McAuliffe made this argument in the closing days of the campaign, and he’s not wrong for wanting political victories in D.C. to fire up his base in Virginia.
We will never know definitively, yet my hunch is it wouldn’t have been enough. Democrats are often portrayed as the party of big spending, yet it’s crucial that they build support for their agenda among working-class voters and celebrate legislative victories like the bipartisan infrastructure deal so we can compete with China and build a strong, competitive economy built for the 21st century.
7. The Big Lie took a big hit
Trump’s blatantly false claim about Biden stealing the 2020 election fell flat this time around. There was not a single Republican peep or audible whimper about fixed voting machines or ballots not counted in this race.
Was it simply the result they liked? Or was all the mythical cheating somehow magically repaired? Disciplined and on message, Youngkin constructed a viable path to victory that did not burrow down the rabbit hole into fiction and conspiracy.
8. Debates and mistakes matter
McAuliffe made a significant error in the final gubernatorial debate when he said, ““I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” as part of a more comprehensive response attempting to explain his position on a bill he vetoed previously as governor. But the damage was done.
Youngkin ran with the sound bite, connected it to volatile local school board issues, and successfully exploited McAuliffe’s gaffe. In razor-thin elections like this one, candidates often can’t afford missteps, especially fueling the cultural wars, like this.
9. Putting America (and its democracy) first
When McAulliffe conceded the race and acknowledged the will of the voters, he did what we hope and expect in democracy. When candidates lie about the results or maliciously claim they won, they denigrate our election process and erode trust in our country. It can do irreparable harm in America and abroad. McAuliffe is a patriot and showed class.
10. Not a Republican trend or template
Youngkin’s victory in Virginia is not a “cookie-cutter” for 2022. McAulliffe is a moderate Democrat who successfully ran for governor in 2013. He worked tirelessly in this campaign, shook practically every hand in the commonwealth, and ran an aggressive get out the vote campaign.
Youngkin was a natural first-time candidate who connected with Virginians, and he is as rich as a Rockefeller. It was a competitive race, and Youngkin ran an exceptional campaign — but any Republican who believes the Virginia race is a template for the party across the country is delusional.
Virginia shows that even in democratically trending states, pathways do exist for the right kind of Republican candidate. And Democrats make it easier for them when they fail to articulate a clear economic agenda and push back against effective culture war attacks.
As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill said, “all politics is local.” Democrats must update their 2022 campaign playbook, not get completely obsessed with Trump, and convey a message about why they deserve to govern. The new bipartisan infrastructure bill is a great place to begin. Let’s get to work.
Tim Roemer is a former U.S. congressman (D-Ind.) and former U.S. Ambassador to India. He is a member of the National Council on Election Integrity, composed of former elected officials, former Cabinet secretaries, retired military officials and civic leaders. He serves as co-chair of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus, the largest bipartisan group of former members of Congress, governors and Cabinet secretaries ever assembled to advocate for political reform. Roemer’s opinions are his own and do not reflect those of Issue One.