The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Youngkin victorious, a post-Trump Virginia returns as a swing state

The Nov. 2 Virginia election has become an unexpectedly close contest. The commonwealth holds elections for governor, lieutenant governor and statewide offices. (Video: Luis Velarde, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

For months, the political establishment predicted that Virginia’s gubernatorial race was Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s to lose.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) had won the state by nine points in 2017 and President Biden had trounced Donald Trump by 10 points last year. Those victories added grist to the prevailing perception that the commonwealth was no longer welcoming to Republicans running statewide.

Yet in the first election since Trump left Washington, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory over McAuliffe on Tuesday upended any notion that Virginia is a Democratic stronghold.

A dozen years after last winning statewide races in the commonwealth, the Republicans were heading for an apparent sweep of Virginia’s top three races, including the campaigns for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected Virginia’s governor on Nov. 2, defeating his Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

The results demonstrated that Virginia’s identity as a Democratic safe harbor was fleeting, existing mainly while Trump was the nation’s dominant political force, despite recent election results suggesting otherwise and demographic shifts in Northern Virginia over the past two decades that had helped Democrats.

“Virginia was a purple state for quite some time and was always a purple state underneath,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic consultant. “But in the Trump era, we became a blue state in reaction to his policies. We will go back to being a swing state going forward.”

The results Tuesday were reminiscent of the 2009 election, when Republican Robert F. McDonnell became governor and led a GOP sweep of the state’s top three offices. Since then, Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the gubernatorial race to McAuliffe by 2.5 points in 2013. The following year, Republican Ed Gillespie came within a percentage point of upsetting incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner.

After Trump’s election, the Democrats’ victory margins grew dramatically in subsequent races — that is, until Tuesday night, when the party appeared to be shut out.

“Virginia is a state that leans blue, but it’s not a slam dunk for Democrats,” said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant. “So often we try to put these things in boxes — red and blue. But these things are often fluid.”

That Youngkin ran such a robust campaign in Virginia, Heye said, validates a strategy that future Republican candidates can embrace in the commonwealth and perhaps beyond.

“If you’re a Republican and you’re trashing Trump, your days are numbered,” Heye said. “He didn’t want to alienate the base. He wanted to talk about things that were affecting families every day, things like the grocery tax, job creation and inflation. Would that work in Alabama? No. Montana? No. Virginia? Yes.”

Robert Norfleet, 81, a Richmond resident, said he saw in Youngkin’s candidacy the chance for Virginia’s politics to move toward the center, after a period in which he believes liberal Democrats had dominated the region.

“I want a change in Virginia politics, which has been drifting far left,” Norfleet said after voting at a Richmond church. “I am afraid our country is drifting away from its old values, and that’s probably okay in some aspects but dangerous in others. I’m anxious to see us come back more toward the center.”

Since 2013, Democratic candidates have drawn increasingly large percentages of the vote in former GOP strongholds — counties such as Prince William, Loudoun, Henrico and Chesterfield.

But McAuliffe did not fare as well in those counties on Tuesday. Youngkin was leading in Chesterfield County, for example, a Richmond suburb where Biden had defeated Trump by seven percentage points. In Prince William County, McAuliffe was leading by 17 percentage points. Northam won Prince William by 24 percentage points in 2017.

And in Loudoun County, where Youngkin focused his attacks on critical race theory and other educational issues, McAuliffe was leading by 10 percentage points — far less than Northam’s 20-point margin over Gillespie.

Across the state, Youngkin was able to appeal to Trump’s base by voicing support for the former president and calling for election integrity. But Youngkin also drew moderate and independent voters by talking about the economy and parental involvement in schools.

His lack of a governing record and avoidance of any joint appearances with Trump created enough ambiguity about his core beliefs that he managed not to alienate enough of either faction to stall his campaign, some experts said.

“Sometimes being less defined is more effective than being more defined,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor. “The Virginia political culture tends not to reward extremists. During the Trump years, Virginia looked a lot bluer than it actually was. The more you’re behind the partisan figures of your party, the less it helps you in Virginia.”

The national political climate posed a challenge for both candidates. While McAuliffe was weighed down by Biden’s sagging popularity and the lack of congressional action on infrastructure, Youngkin’s albatross, at least among some more moderate voters, was Trump.

Malinda Dunn, 64, who says she has backed Republican candidates most of her life, was sufficiently repelled by Trump that she rejected Youngkin and voted only for Democrats. “Trump was definitely the deciding issue and his influence on the party,” she said after voting at Centreville High School in Fairfax County. “The dishonesty, the decision-making based not on what’s good for the country but what’s good for the party.”

Less than 10 miles south in Manassas, Rick Gutierrez, the chief executive officer of a cybersecurity company, said his aversion to the Democratic Party drove him to vote for Youngkin.

“I don’t even like this guy,” he said of Youngkin, explaining that he disagreed with the Republican’s opposition to abortion rights. But Gutierrez said he felt more antipathy toward the Democrats for promoting mask and vaccine mandates and pushing for the legalization of marijuana — policies he described as “socialist.”

From the start, McAuliffe’s advantages included that he had ended his term as governor with most Virginians approving of his tenure. He also benefited from the ongoing growth of increasingly diverse and left leaning communities in Northern Virginia.

But McAuliffe found his campaign depleted by the electorate’s frustration with what Republicans and even Democrats portrayed as Biden’s botched military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the president’s inability to secure congressional approval for his domestic agenda.

At the same time, Youngkin, a relatively mild-mannered former Carlyle Group executive with no past governing record to pick apart, remained an elusive target. “Glenn has this Teflon quality to him that Democrats underestimated,” said Shaun Kenney, the former executive director for the Republican Party of Virginia. “If you’re going to call the man evil, it doesn’t really sync with his character.”

Over and over, McAuliffe tried to focus attention on Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin, hoping to motivate Democrats and attract independents in a state that the former president had twice lost.

But many voters did not buy the idea that Youngkin was Trump-lite.

Laurel Wise, 48, a Henrico County resident and former college administrator, said Youngkin became more palatable to her by signaling that he did not want to appear alongside Trump.

“Believe me, if there had been any association, I’d be pulling the blue lever today,” she said.

Referring to her choice of Youngkin, she described herself as feeling “a little dirty.”

“Look, this is hard for me,” she said. “But I’m going to do it.”