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Opinion A culture shift in Virginia helped Republicans win a historic election

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) speaks with Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears in Fredericksburg, Va., in October. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Sophia A. Nelson, a former House Republican Congressional Committee counsel, is a member of the board of directors of Unite America. She is the author or “ePluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.”

The Republican Party’s decade-long drought in Virginia state politics — from 2009-2021 — is finally over. And, with a touch of irony and an impressive upset victory by Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and his ticket mates — Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome Sears and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares — it was the GOP that elected the most racially and gender diverse political ticket in Virginia’s 400-year history.

Youngkin figured out how to keep the Trump base happy while courting independents and once-former moderate Republicans, including me. For the record, I am a “Never Trumper," so Youngkin could have had my support, but his talk of “election integrity” out the gates was a non-starter for me because it was a slick way of whistling the “big lie" to the Trump base. The cynical, pragmatic side of me gets it, but the democracy- and voting rights-loving side of me has major issues with it. Nevertheless, Youngkin’s ability to walk that line propelled him to a win.

At the presidential level, Virginia has not voted Republican since the George W. Bush era of the early 2000s. At all levels, the state trended blue during the Trump era. But, as I have been saying for years, Virginia is purple. Not blue. And certainly not red. That still holds true, even after the Republicans’ big win here this month.

So, how did the Republicans elect the first woman and first black female lieutenant governor and the first Hispanic attorney general? They ran an issues-focused campaign that energized their base around core conservative issues — abortion rights, gun rights and crime. They smartly captured independents and centrist voters who agreed with them on the so-called culture wars around education, “critical race theory” and transgender identity issues.

My July 2021 Local Opinions essay, “Loudoun County is navigating the rough terrain of the nation’s culture wars," may well have been the understatement of the year.

In fact, Loudoun County, where I live, has become the symbol of the nation’s reckoning on how we teach factual and balanced American history and how to navigate the challenging issues of transgender rights, use of pronouns and more. I wrote:

Make no mistake, as “we go” here in Virginia over the next three months, so the nation will follow. So pay close attention to the 2021 gubernatorial and state delegate races here. It’s all going to happen right here. Virginia is no longer ruby red, for sure, but neither is she dark blue. Barack Obama proved that theory correct in both 2008 and 2012. Independent and swing voters in vote-rich Northern Virginia always make the difference in close election contests. This year will be no different. If the culture wars win, Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin wins and the Republicans are likely headed to a big 2022 victory in the U.S. House and maybe even the U.S. Senate. Trump is hugely unpopular in the state and in Northern Virginia in particular, but the “culture wars” have seemed to awaken a sleeping bear and might be the very thing Republicans in this state need to get a win in their column for the first time in more than a decade. Only time will tell.

As it turns out, White female voters put Youngkin in the governor’s mansion. The data is stunning, and it shows how very disconnected Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAulife was from the importance of school educational curriculum throughout the commonwealth. Republicans’ critical race theory gambit paid off.

White female voters gave Youngkin his edge — 57 percent of all White women voted for Youngkin. But White female voters without a college degree gave Youngkin a whopping 75 percent of their votes. This was a 15-point shift from Biden to Youngkin in one election cycle for female voters in Virginia. That’s going to be a death knell for Democrats nationally if they do not correct this trend before the 2022 midterms.

More interesting to me, however, is that the loyal Democrat Black female vote in Virginia fell from 92 percent in the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden to just 86 percent in 2021 for McAuliffe. These women did not vote for Youngkin. They just didn’t show up. That may have been a reflection of the Democratic primary, which McAuliffe, with his big money and big endorsements, won over two viable Black female candidates. That created an enthusiasm gap, for sure.

At the end of the day, this election in Virginia was about local issues and cultural shifts in education, a reaction to mandates on masking and closed schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

Youngkin invested early in voter identification and issues targeting. According to a Post op-ed by his campaign staff, Youngkin and his team of data miners “targeted 390,000 Asian American voters — including 2,172 Polynesian voters and 5,457 central Asians — and 66,914 Middle Eastern voters — with a vote goal for each group, as well as a plan to reach them. We did the same for Latinos.”

To his credit, Youngkin built a diverse coalition of Virginia voters, and he ran a well-funded, disciplined, on-message campaign. He did not run from his Christian, pro-life views. He stood up for and leaned into them. Normally, in a state like Virginia, those issues would be problematic for a candidate. This year, voters simply weren’t interested in anything other than issues affecting Virginia.

Sears’s win is historic and huge. She is Black and pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Trump. Since her win, she has been the subject of much ire and attacks from the national media. I know her. She is a strong, accomplished, smart Black woman with a compelling story of loss (her daughter and grandchildren were killed in a car accident in 2012). As a former Marine and Virginia state delegate, she is devoted to American values.

Miyares becoming attorney general will presumably help Republicans build inroads with the Latino community for 2022 and beyond. He is young and smart and has a bright future.

So, what does it all mean? It shows that Virginia Democrats must woo White female voters back into their column. McAuliffe ran a tone-deaf campaign that was out of touch with the real issues Virginians face. He misread the tea leaves, and he nationalized a race that was all local.

The good news for the people of Virginia, however, is that this race had record turnout for an off-cycle election year, and independents really made the difference. More Virginians are engaged in our body politic, and more independents are using their power in both the presidential and gubernatorial elections to send a strong message about what matters to them.