The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia Republicans rise from the ashes while Democrats ponder what went wrong

Supporters of Republican Glenn Youngkin, who won Tuesday’s election for Virginia governor, wait for him to address supporters at his election night party in Chantilly on Nov. 2. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) watched Tuesday’s election returns with a familiar sinking feeling. As Republicans racked up big wins around Virginia, Rasoul realized his district in Roanoke would most likely stand again as the westernmost outpost for Democrats in the House of Delegates, surrounded by a sea of red that shone brighter than ever.

“I feel like it’s ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” he said, referring to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray’s character lives the same day over and over. Rasoul has been here before, watching his party fail to connect with rural voters in the western half of the state.

Two years ago, an ascendant Democratic Party had visions of painting Virginia blue. But now it’s Republicans who are on the rise, with Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin leading a sweep of statewide offices and the House of Delegates swinging back to a GOP majority. House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) conceded the shift on Friday, though the Associated Press has yet to call several close pivotal races.

Youngkin became Virginia governor by wooing both moderates and Trump supporters. So how Trumpy is he?

Suddenly, a Virginia GOP that hadn’t won statewide since 2009 has a major star in the telegenic Youngkin, a former private equity chief executive whom most voters had never heard of a year ago. His ticket mates — Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome E. Sears, who is Black, and Attorney General-elect Jason S. Miyares, whose mother emigrated from Cuba — are diverse up-and-comers for a party that has otherwise seemed far Whiter than the rapidly changing state.

And Democrats who had been riding four years of glory in opposition to a Trump White House are left in disarray, with disagreement over what went wrong and a fresh void in party leadership.

How Youngkin shifted the vote toward Republicans across Virginia

It’s a big comeback for Republicans, who “were about to be relegated to third-party status,” said Chris Saxman, a former GOP state delegate and now executive director of Virginia FREE, a pro-business group. “This was literally their last chance for about a generation. Because if a Republican couldn’t win in this environment, with a candidate of the quality of Glenn Youngkin . . . the downside of losing would have been catastrophic.”

History favored Republicans. Going back four decades, the party that lost the last presidential election has won the Virginia governor’s race, with one exception: Democrat Terry McAuliffe won narrowly in 2013.

McAuliffe’s failure to repeat the feat left his campaign blaming the climate in Washington, where Democrats are struggling. President Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted since the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan over the summer and with the protracted impasse in Congress that occurred over infrastructure and spending bills.

“Youngkin was able to capitalize on strong overall turnout and a negative national climate for Democrats in order to win,” the McAuliffe campaign concluded in an internal post-election analysis memo obtained by The Washington Post.

Democrats were braced for soft turnout from their own party and a surge from Republicans, but what actually happened was a surprise: Turnout was up for both, compared with 2017 — but it was way, way up for Republicans.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist who spearheaded Gov. Ralph Northam’s win in Virginia in 2017. “This is the big warning sign for Democrats. If you have a legislative district that is suburban with urban parts and [some] rural parts, the Republican part of your district is going to show up at unprecedented levels” if the current environment holds.

As GOP takes over Richmond, local officials in deep-blue Northern Virginia start to worry

Rich Anderson, a veteran Republican state delegate from Prince William County who was tossed out of office in the 2017 blue wave, knows the fickleness of politics only too well. He’s mindful of that even now, as he is suddenly riding high as Virginia’s GOP chairman.

“I have always said to Republicans and Democrats alike, ‘If you think after a particular election there’s been a permanent realignment of the voting public, that’s foolish talk,’ ” Anderson said. “Things in politics can turn on a dime. Everyone was shocked in ’17 and ’19, the way it flipped. And look what happened in 2021. It’s a pendulum business, and it has been for 250 years.”

Virginia Republicans had seen narrow losses in statewide races turn to blowouts once Donald Trump took the White House. With Trump’s resounding 10-point loss here in the 2020 presidential election came the hope that the party could turn the page. Yet months of paralyzing infighting followed, as state party leaders battled over how to pick their statewide nominees, finally settling on an unwieldy “unassembled” convention.

Unorthodox Republican contest for Virginia governor breeds confusion, suspicion

Out of that unorthodox nomination process emerged a ticket that Republicans quickly embraced, Anderson said. With 100 House seats on the ballot, the party also recruited Republicans to run in 98 races, an unusually high number.

“There were immense challenges for the party to claw itself back from the wilderness,” Anderson said. “I had pledged that we would run candidates in every House of Delegates [race]. I told people who were running in tough, tough blue areas, ‘We may be asking you to fly a kamikaze mission, but what I want you to know is two things: Number one, you give the voters a choice. Secondly, you develop a skill set for another race.’ And that’s how we grow a bench of experienced people.”

While Youngkin’s win represents a massive swing from Republican performance four years ago, his margin was narrow, just a little over two points. Republicans will govern better if they keep that close outcome in mind, said Saxman, the former GOP delegate.

In 2012, when the GOP unified control of the state Senate, House of Delegates and the Executive Mansion, they overreached, he said. A slew of socially conservative legislation included a bill that would have required most women seeking an abortion to first undergo a vaginal ultrasound, which drew international notice — and ridicule from late-night comics.

It was later amended to require a less invasive abdominal ultrasound, but Democrats successfully used the measure for years to accuse the GOP of waging a “war on women.”

“It sort of undid a lot of their momentum, and they grew too conservative for the state,” Saxman said. “They became misaligned with the electorate. . . . Now they have an opportunity to reestablish their brand [as something] that is appealing to suburban voters.”

Republicans should be particularly cautious about their apparent new majority in the House because it’s built on an extremely thin margin of votes, said John McGlennon, a political scientist at the College of William & Mary and a Democratic county supervisor in James City County. Just three close races tipped the balance of power, he said, adding that it would take a switch in only about 800 votes “to change control of the House of Delegates back to the Democrats.”

And because the Census Bureau did not get new demographic data to the states this year in time to redraw legislative boundaries, a pending lawsuit might require all 100 House seats to undergo elections again next year under a map that’s expected to be more favorable to Democrats.

Northam welcomes Gov.-elect Youngkin to Virginia Executive Mansion as transition planning gets underway

Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who has been serving as House minority leader and is now running for speaker of the House, said Thursday that Republicans intend to keep to a focused agenda.

“To make our schools better, to make our streets safer, to make life more affordable for Virginians — that’s what we ran on,” Gilbert told reporters in a conference call. Asked whether Virginia might take on hot-button issues such as abortion or voting restrictions, Gilbert said that was not the plan.

“You didn’t hear our caucus running on those things,” he said. “We’re focused on things that we think were important to voters on Tuesday.”

Former Republican delegate Manoli Loupassi felt the backlash from the ultrasound bill and lost his Richmond House seat in the 2017 anti-Trump wave. He said he was glad to see Gilbert focusing on education and public safety.

“It looks like we’ve gotten the message, ‘Just because we’re giving you control of the House of Delegates and control of the governor’s mansion, that doesn’t mean necessarily you should push a too-far right agenda because we’ll punish you again,’ ” Loupassi said. “This is not a red state, okay? At best, it’s purple. We’re going to have to focus on what our electorate wants.”

Most Democrats don’t see their own losses as being a consequence of overreach, after two years of major changes such as abolishing the death penalty, legalizing marijuana and extending voter access. If anything, the party did not tell a compelling story about its recent successes, such as building a strong economy, said Bergman, the Democratic strategist.

He faulted the McAuliffe campaign for not capitalizing on Northam’s record. “In all honesty, their campaign was run on the playbook of 2020: Trump and the pandemic. And the [election] was about the economy and education,” he said.

The losses force a changing of the guard as the old generation of leadership steps aside. Northam, who like all Virginia governors is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking a second term, has made clear he has no further interest in politics. The pediatric neurologist is returning to medical practice in Norfolk.

The Democratic Party of Virginia expects to elect new leadership in the coming weeks, having deferred insider elections a year ago to focus on the governor’s race. And for the first time in years, there’s no single obvious person waiting to run for governor next time around.

“The good news for the Democrats is that all our young, energetic stars now have the opportunity to kind of step up and claim party leadership,” Bergman said. He mentioned three Democratic congresswomen — Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton — as well as lawmakers such as Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (Norfolk) and Sen. Jennifer McClellan (Richmond) as “probably the future of the Democratic Party.”

“Democrats have to learn again . . . how to run in a competitive state,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. After seeing their numbers artificially inflated by the Trump era, he said, Democrats need to realize their structural advantage in Virginia is probably only a point or two.

“In any given year where the environment is either against them or neutral, they’ve go to really earn the wins,” he said. “They can’t just scare the voters into voting for them like they’ve been able to do the last four years.”

Republicans, meanwhile, need to avoid the hyper-conservative trends that have gripped other states but that would be out of step with moderate Virginia, Kidd said. In that sense, Youngkin is a big mystery at the heart of the party’s success because he has no political track record and his campaign veered from moderates to firing up the Trump base.

Between Trump acolyte and suburban dad: Inside the many faces of Virginia GOP’s Youngkin

“You can see what you want to see in him,” Kidd said. “You can see a more moderate businessman, and you can see someone who said the things about Trump and social issues that conservatives care about. Right behind that curtain are all of the things that have gotten Republicans in trouble in Virginia over the last 10 years.”

As GOP nominee for Virginia governor, Youngkin goes mum on guns and abortion

Ravi Perry, chairman of the political science department at Howard University, said Youngkin’s win highlighted racial tensions in the state. The overwhelming turnout of White conservatives amounted to a reaction against last year’s racial justice protests and the toppling of Confederate statues, he said. Nothing highlighted that more, he added, than Youngkin’s promise to ban the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept about the roots of racism that isn’t on Virginia’s K-12 curriculum and that many people struggled to define.

“When people are all uptight about something they can’t explain and the word ‘race’ is in the middle of it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what’s going on,” Perry said.

Rasoul, the Roanoke delegate who became the westernmost House Democrat when Del. Chris Hurst lost in Montgomery County, has long warned his party of the need to broaden its appeal throughout the suburbs and rural areas of the far-flung state.

“What people want is a vision of how you’re going to improve their lives,” he said. “They don’t want to hear about you demonizing the other side every chance you get. . . . We did not do a good job of that [in this election]. Instead we wanted to just tie Youngkin to Trump, and the people of Virginia deserve better.”