Republican Sweep

Democrats lose statewide for the first time since 2009.

Virginia has a long tradition of offering a counterpoint to presidential elections starting after the election of Democrat Jimmy Carter for president in 1976. Virginia responded by electing Republican John Dalton. Ever since then, it's been a pretty predictable pattern. After the Reagan Revolution in 1980, Virginia elected Democrat Chuck Robb governor. The election of Democrat Bill Clinton brought on the election of Republican George Allen, and the answer to Republican George W. Bush was Democrat Mark Warner.

Only one candidate for governor has been able to break the spell — Terry McAuliffe, who bucked the trend in 2013 by defeating Republican Ken Cuccinelli on the heels of Barack Obama's reelection. Democrats were hopeful that McAuliffe could pull it off again. But his campaign attempting to tie Republican Glenn Youngkin to former President Donald Trump failed as a wave of voters raised objections to anti-racism curriculum in schools and transgender students using the bathroom of the gender their choice.

“Unfortunately, Virginia’s long-standing trend of electing a governor from the opposite party of the president continues," said Noam Lee, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. "Sidestepping the issues that mattered to voters, the GOP lied and schemed to hide their candidate’s extreme positions, and their far-right agenda won out."

Youngkin declared victory at a raucous victory party in Chantilly, thanking his family and outlining his agenda for the next four years. At the top of the list was education reform. He made no mention of critical race theory, the law-school concept that he has vowed to ban from public school classrooms. But he did promise the largest education budget in history, and he said he would expand charter schools. He also said he would deliver the largest tax refund ever, and he vowed to eliminate the grocery tax.

"This is our moment," said Youngkin. "Together, we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth."

The blame game has already started among Democrats, who are critical of the McAuliffe campaign for focussing too much attention on Trump and for not fighting back harder against allegations that critical race theory is taught in Virginia classrooms. As Democrats saw power slipping from their grasp Tuesday night, they were particularly angry that Republicans were able to seize on the issue of education — a campaign issue Democrats have long considered their own personal realm.

"You cannot lose education," said Brian Moran, a former Democratic caucus chairman in the House who now works in the Northam administration. "It's bread and butter: Health care, education and safety. That's what Democrats talk about, and that's what we care about. We cannot forfeit those issues."

Since Democrats seized control of the General Assembly two years ago, they've been able to achieve drastic change. They've legalized marijuana, abolished the death penalty, restricted predatory lending, implemented gun violence prevention measures and overturned restrictions to abortion. For many voters, that may have been too much too soon. The election of Youngkin and the Republican ticket is certain to be viewed as a repudiation of the agenda that Democrats pushed during their brief era of legislative power.

"It’s official: Virginians have completely rejected the failed policies of the liberals running Richmond and voted for a brighter future full of supported small businesses, empowered parents and safer streets," said Dee Duncan, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

"We supported the right candidates, developed the right messages, and executed the right strategies to overcome a two-to-one spending disadvantage driven by national liberals like Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Nancy Pelosi and Stacey Abrams."

Youngkin launched his campaign initially aiming squarely at economic issues, promising tax cuts as part of a very traditional Republican playbook. But then events caught up with the campaign. A high-profile prosecution in Loudoun gave opponents of transgender students using the bathroom of their choice an opportunity to question safety. And a national movement against so-called critical race theory erupted at local school board meetings across Virginia. Then McAulliffe stuck his foot in his mouth in the second debate saying he didn't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.

"I think Terry made an unfortunate remark, and that started it," said Del. Kaye Kory (D-38). "Before that, there really was not any talk about this on this scale."

After the debate in Alexandria at the Schlesinger Center, Republicans recalibrated their campaign to be aimed right at the issue of parental rights. That gave them an opportunity to ride the wave of concern over anti-racism curriculum in the classroom, which they call critical race theory even though that's not taught in Virginia classrooms. And every new detail in the Loudoun prosecution was amplified on right-wing media. McAuliffe's own words were endlessly repeated in Republican television ads, and the McAuliffe campaign was late in walking the statement back.

"We are grateful to Virginians who place their trust in us," said Republican House Leader Todd Gilbert after Republicans won enough seats to take control of the House of Delegates. "We look forward to immediately going to work with Governor-elect Youngkin and his administration to restore fiscal order, give parents the voice they deserve in education and keep our commonwealth safe. Our work begins now.”