Former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe came up short in his bid to become only the second Virginia governor since the Civil War to win a second term, with key suburban districts joining rural parts of the state in big swings toward Youngkin, leading to a slim GOP win.
Youngkin’s victory, projected by the Associated Press and Edison Research, come only a year after Biden carried Virginia over Donald Trump by 10 points, a wild swing that casts doubt on Democrats’ agenda in Richmond and Washington alike.
Youngkin is now a bright new star for the GOP — a basketball-playing business tycoon who navigated the trickiest path in politics, appealing to moderate voters while still bringing out the most enthusiastic followers of Trump.
“From the farms of the Shenandoah Valley to the docks and shipyards of Hampton Roads, to the coalfields in Southwest Virginia, from the banks of the James River, to the memorials in Arlington National Cemetery, this is our Virginia to build together and we are going to go to work on day one,” Youngkin told supporters around 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, once the race had been called.
McAuliffe conceded to Youngkin in a voicemail Wednesday morning, according to McAuliffe’s campaign. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said he called Youngkin Wednesday morning to congratulate him on his victory and that the two would meet on Thursday to begin planning the transition.
“We can all be proud that Virginia once again conducted a free and fair election with integrity. It is a hallmark of our American democracy that we all respect the results, no matter who wins,” Northam said in a written statement.
The former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group private equity firm, Youngkin flirted with Trump’s election conspiracy theories by refusing to directly acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s win until after he secured the GOP nomination in the spring. Late in the race, he steered away from his emphasis on “election integrity,” and while he welcomed Trump’s endorsements, he never campaigned with the former president.
Nonetheless, Trump was quick to take credit for the win, issuing a statement through his Save America PAC even before the race had been called: “I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin. Without you, he would not have been close to winning. The MAGA movement is bigger and stronger than ever before. Glenn will be a great governor. Thank you to the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia and most particularly, to our incredible MAGA voters!”
McAuliffe appeared on stage at the Tysons Hilton around 10 p.m. to tell hundreds of supporters that there were still votes to be counted, hours before his concession.
After thanking his family and staff for running a competitive campaign, music returned to blaring over the speakers, and McAuliffe joined the crowd, greeting supporters and stopping for photos.
“I want to thank you,” he said. “The McAuliffe family loves each and every one of you.”
At the Youngkin campaign’s watch party at the Westfields Marriott hotel in Chantilly, a buzzing crowd — wine glasses in one hand, bags of popcorn in the other — crowded into the ballroom as Fox News played from the TV screens around 10 p.m. The coronavirus didn’t seem top of mind — except for the hotel waitstaff, there was nary a mask in sight.
Marijke and David Dupree, longtime friends of Youngkin and his wife, Suzanne, could not vote for him because they live in D.C. But they turned up to show their support for a man they know from church (they belong to the nondenominational congregation Youngkin founded) and business (David Dupree is a former Carlyle partner).
“I consider him more of a Reagan Republican than a Trump Republican,” said Marijke Dupree, a political independent who said she intended the comment as a compliment. “He’s got a very big heart, and he’s very mission-driven.”
Youngkin contributed more than $20 million of his own fortune toward portraying himself as a likable moderate who wears a red fleece vest, promises tax cuts and favors economic development.
But Youngkin surged in the late weeks of the race by tapping into a deep well of conservative parental resentment against public school systems. He promised to ban the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach to racial history that’s not part of the Virginia K-12 curriculum, and painted McAuliffe as a champion of big government and teachers unions who wants to keep parents out of the classroom.
McAuliffe worked relentlessly to tie Youngkin to the unpopular Trump and warned that Virginia’s recent record of Democratic policy changes — from safeguarding abortion and voting rights to expanding access to health care — could be at risk if Youngkin won.
He also accused the Republican of fanning the flames of racism and brought former president Barack Obama, Vice President Harris and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams to Virginia to try to build enthusiasm among Black voters, a crucial Democratic constituency.
It was unclear how well the push panned out, though Democrats’ efforts to establish expansive early-voting access helped result in good turnout at the polls.
Christopher E. Piper, the commissioner of the state’s elections department, said turnout was higher than expected in some localities, forcing some precincts to rely on supplemental ballots after they ran out of normal ones.
“We saw pretty high turnout in some of these areas,” he said. “The good news is, there are procedures in place to ensure that voters can get ballots and that they can get ballots to the precincts in a timely manner so that voting can go on unimpeded.”
About 1.2 million Virginians cast their ballots in person or by mail between Sept. 17 and Oct. 30, only the second year the state has allowed no-excuse absentee voting for such an extended period. Preliminary exit polling estimated turnout at 53.3 percent, smashing the 47 percent mark set in 2017.
The governor’s race also broke records for fundraising in Virginia, with the two major-party candidates raising roughly $115 million combined, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
While Republicans hadn’t won statewide in Virginia since 2009, the state also has a record of electing a governor from the opposite party of whoever is in the White House — broken only once in the past 40 years, by McAuliffe in 2013.
A third candidate, Princess Blanding of the Liberation Party, was also running, with a campaign based on social justice issues and appeals to the far left. In preliminary returns, it did not appear that her vote totals were a factor in the close outcome.
Voters described a wide range of factors that pulled them out to the polls but returned again and again to themes of race, education and — for good or ill — Trump, whose polarizing shadow has loomed over the election.
In early exit polling, about a third of voters said the economy was their top issue, followed closely by education, which was cited by about a quarter of voters.
At Purcellville in western Loudoun County, the yard signs were almost evenly split between McAuliffe and Youngkin. Caley and Jeff Adams, 41 and 40, said they voted Democrat up and down the ballot for the sake of their four children, who are between the ages of 9 and 16, and partly out of concern about the pandemic.
“I don’t want Youngkin to win,” Caley Adams said. “His association to Trump, wanting to take the masks off kids in schools . . . there’s nothing good there.”
A former military family who moved to the area in 2019, the Adamses said they avoided talking politics with neighbors after seeing the angry school board debates that roiled Loudoun in recent months.
At the same precinct, Republican voter Krystina Agresta, 34, was also wary of having her political views known. She didn’t usually vote in the governor’s race, she said, but given “everything wrong with the country,” she figured her vote would matter. Taxes in Virginia are “ridiculous,” and inflation is “absurd,” Agresta said, and above all, she disagreed with how McAuliffe had tried to tie Trump to Youngkin as a campaign strategy.
“It’s like, get off it, it’s over, someone else is in charge now,” Agresta said. Lowering her voice, she added that she didn’t think the Trump connection was negative for Youngkin; she voted for Trump in 2020.
“But you know,” she added, “I don’t want to say that too loud.”
Voters on both sides routinely cited the subject of critical race theory in interviews Tuesday.
In Chesterfield County outside Richmond, Alex Prill, 61, said she voted a straight Republican ticket.
“I feel like they all stand conservative, and that’s where I’m leaning,” Prill said. She particularly liked the party’s stance on banning the teaching of critical race theory. “We have to teach history as it was, and not as what it’s become,” she said, adding that “I just really wish that the racial stuff would stop because I feel like it’s just polarizing everybody.”
Robert Monahan, 55, said he voted for Republicans across the board this year, as he walked out of Harper Park Middle School in Leesburg at 9 a.m., because he believes Youngkin would do more to help the middle class. He listed eliminating the grocery tax as an example and added that he thinks the government should keep critical race theory out of schools and allow parents to have more choice in the curriculum.
“The Democratic Party is catering to the very extreme wing of their party and not trying to be centrist,” Monahan said. “I think that party has gone so far as to delve into censorship, and I’d rather not live in a society that censors people’s free thoughts and ideas.”
But just as many voters said they were motivated by opposition to Youngkin’s position on teaching racial history.
In Arlington, middle school art teacher Emily Shepardson, 58, said she condemned what she called “racist attacks by Youngkin” after voting for the Democratic ticket. The focus on critical race theory is nonsensical, she said, because the topic “isn’t even a state mandate.” She recalled a point made by a co-worker in response to some parents’ attempts to ban critical race theory: “I’m sorry, but we just call that history.”
Cluny Brown, a 57-year-old history teacher voting in Henrico County, outside Richmond, said she had shown up early Tuesday “out of fear of losing our democracy.” Brown said she was appalled by Youngkin’s emphasis on critical race theory, which she called “nonsense.”
“Teaching that racism is systemic in this nation is truth, not fabrication,” she said. “There’s evidence behind it, and I’m trying to teach evidence-based thinking, and Republicans are just pushing nonsense down everybody’s throats.”
McAuliffe spent the closing weeks of the campaign accusing Youngkin of exploiting racial tension and brought in a slew of high-powered surrogates to help appeal to Black voters — including former president Barack Obama, Vice President Harris and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams.
At the Titustown Recreation Center in Norfolk, Carolyn Harris, 59, who runs a nursing aide company, said fairness was the main issue driving her vote for McAuliffe. She liked that he restored voting privileges for felons. “Everybody should be given a second chance,” she said.
Improving education and closing the wage gap, particularly the minimum wage, were the other issues that swayed her.
The pandemic also weighed heavily on her. Her business is down $1,600 a month, she said. And her husband lost his job as a hydraulic technician after he spent a month in a hospital with covid-19. She wants politicians to promote masking, vaccines and hand-washing. Youngkin has been outspoken against mandates for vaccines and masks, though he encouraged people to get vaccinated if they choose.
At George Carver Elementary School in Richmond, Madds May, a 23-year-old analytical chemist and Starbucks manager, voted for McAuliffe. While he said Blanding’s platform is more in line with the issues he personally cares about, May said he thought McAuliffe’s chance of winning was in question — and he prioritized keeping Virginia blue.
“I care about keeping abortion relatively accessible, keeping trans and LGBTQ rights in the 21st century, homelessness and housing, and generally preventing us from turning into Texas,” May said. “I voted for Terry just because of the statistics.”
From a distance, the odds seemed stacked in Democrats’ favor this year. McAuliffe was a popular governor when he left office in 2018, prohibited by the state’s constitution from seeking a second consecutive term. Northam, his lieutenant governor, won the top job in a landslide and, working with a new majority in the General Assembly, has presided over sweeping changes that generally seem popular, from legalizing marijuana to abolishing the death penalty and expanding access to the vote.
Compared with other states, Virginia is doing well in its coronavirus response, with a vaccination rate above the national average and an unemployment rate below it. As the only former Confederate state to reject Trump in 2016, Virginia seemed to have turned solidly blue with Biden’s decisive victory last year.
But Youngkin had more working in his favor than it might have seemed.
This year, the bad news for Democrats began over the summer and never relented. Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan damaged his popularity, and the stalemate with a Democratic Congress over infrastructure and other spending bills has dug the public-opinion hole ever deeper. Polls showed that Biden’s unpopularity in Virginia was a drag on McAuliffe.
On Tuesday, early exit polls suggested that more voters cast their ballot to oppose Biden than to support him.
Evelyn Griswold cast a ballot for Youngkin in deep-blue Alexandria, praising his support for cutting grocery taxes, promoting charter schools and protecting the state’s “right to work” laws that allow employees to avoid paying dues to unions.
But Griswold, a fundraiser for nonprofits who is in her mid-50s, said she was surprised Youngkin was running such a competitive race given that Biden won Virginia so handily.
The close competition, she said, might mean that not everybody is as excited about the direction the country is moving toward under the Biden administration.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that At George Carver Elementary School is in Henrico. It is in Richmond. The article has been corrected.
Teo Armus, Karina Elwood, Jim Morrison, Antonio Olivo, Henry Rogers, Zinya Salfiti, Nick Shereikis, Rayna Song, Rebecca Tan and Skye Witley contributed to this report.