Republican Glenn Youngkin takes governorship in Virginia

Around the South

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, virtually unknown a year ago, won the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday by running away from the national Republican Party and its most prominent leaders — especially Donald Trump.

The 54-year-old Youngkin’s defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe marked a sharp turnabout in a state that has shifted to the left over the past decade and was captured by President Joe Biden last year by a 10-point margin. It is certain to add to the Democrats’ anxiety about their grip on political power heading into next year’s midterms when the party’s thin majority in Congress could be erased.

The Virginia Republican spent the closing months of his campaign avoiding the divisive issues that most animate Trump’s base, including the baseless prospect of election fraud. And Youngkin benefited from running against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a political insider with a muddled message.

“Candidates matter,” Youngkin chief strategist Jeff Roe said. “We weren’t defined by Obama, we weren’t defined by Trump, we were defined by Glenn.”

Youngkin prevailed in a task that has stumped scores of Republicans before him: attracting Trump’s base while also appealing to suburban voters who were repelled by the former president’s divisive behavior.

The election was the first major test of voter sentiment since Biden took office, and the results were a stern warning sign for the president’s own support. His administration has been shaken repeatedly in recent months, beginning with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, challenges in emerging from the pandemic and a legislative agenda at risk of stalling on Capitol Hill.

During the campaign, Youngkin stated his support for “election integrity,” a nod at Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while also focusing on education and business-friendly policies. He never campaigned in person with Trump, successfully challenging McAuliffe’s effort to cast him as a clone of the former president.

That approach could provide a model for Republicans competing in future races that feature significant numbers of Democratic or independent voters.

But to take advantage of such a climate Tuesday, Republicans in Virginia — and New Jersey, to some extent — followed a strategy that relied on placating Trump’s base while avoiding Trump and his brand of politics. And in a surprise move, Trump cooperated by keeping a low profile, participating only in remote call-in appearances and sending emails late in the race to his supporters.

In New Jersey, Republican Jack Ciattarelli was locked in a tight race with incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy in a state Biden carried by 16 points a year ago. The New Jersey Republican distanced himself from Trump in the election’s closing weeks, having once described him as an embarrassment who was unfit to serve as president.

Meanwhile, as Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey railed against Trump, the Republican candidates tapped into just enough pro-Trump-style grievance to energize the former president’s base. And Youngkin, in particular, offered an uplifting message focused on “kitchen-table” issues — education chief among them — that gave Trump-weary Republicans and independents permission to vote GOP again.

Youngkin’s team worked to keep all high-profile Republicans out of the state. Ambitious GOP surrogates actively politicking in other states, including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, played no significant role in Virginia.

Taking a page from Democrats, the Virginia Republican promised to boost teacher pay and spend more on local schools than ever before. To appeal to Trump’s base, he railed against “critical race theory,” an academic framework that isn’t taught in Virginia schools, but centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people.

But the broader issue of education didn’t begin to resonate more intensely until McAuliffe quipped during a late-September debate that, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The comment, taken out of context during a discussion about banning books, became a centerpiece of Youngkin’s campaign, which quickly launched a “Parents Matter” effort reinforced by heavy advertising spending. The issue tapped into suburban parents’ deep frustration with pandemic-related forced school closures, which extended across the state for much of last year.

“That struck a nerve with parents, including me,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, suggesting the issue could help Republicans in the future. “Across the country, I think the suburbs are coming back to us.”

Overall, 14% of Virginia voters said education was the most important issue facing the state, according to VoteCast. About twice as many cited economy and jobs, while 17% named COVID-19. Voters who ranked the economy and education as the top issues were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe.

Democrats quickly explained away their struggles by pointing to historical patterns. Indeed, only once in the last 40 years has a Virginia candidate won the governor’s race when their party held the White House. And not since 1977 has a New Jersey Democrat won a second consecutive term.

But they also glossed over their candidates’ obvious shortcomings.

Democrats privately acknowledged they may have underestimated the extent to which voters continue to dislike political insiders in the post-Trump era. Murphy was seeking his second term, while McAuliffe spent years as a top political fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton before being elected Virginia governor in 2013.

While McAuliffe pulled on the star power of a host of national Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and ex-Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams, Youngkin largely campaigned on his own, focusing on issues he said were important to Virginians.

Youngkin proved perhaps most successful in deflecting McAuliffe’s efforts to tie him to Trump and the former president’s divisive political style.

Even Biden, who made his second trip of the 2021 campaign to suburban Arlington just a week before Election Day on McAuliffe’s behalf, hammered the point, calling Youngkin a “Trump acolyte.”

“Extremism can come in many forms. It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest,” Biden said, likening protesters in January’s deadly insurrection to Youngkin’s favorite campaign attire.

But above all, the Democrats’ message simply was insufficient to generate energy with a fatigued Democratic electorate.

When asked about issues more generally, voters saw the economy as most important, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, according to AP VoteCast, a statewide survey. Some 34% of Virginia voters ranked the economy as their No. 1 priority, compared to 17% saying COVID-19 and 14% choosing education. Those issues outranked health care, climate change, racism and abortion in the survey.

“America is watching Virginia,” Youngkin said as part of his closing argument. “And America needs us to vote for them too.”

In addition to the stinging loss for the Democrats in Virginia, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy was in a close fight as he sought to become the first Democratic governor to win reelection there in more than four decades.

Meanwhile, mayoral contests from New York and Boston to St. Louis, Detroit and Seattle promised to reshape leadership in many of the nation’s largest cities. Democratic former police captain Eric Adams won in New York City, and Boston voters elected City Councilor Michelle Wu, the city’s first female Asian American mayor. Cincinnati, too, is getting its first Asian American mayor, Aftab Pureval.

Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot initiative that sought to overhaul policing in their city, where George Floyd was killed by a white police officer on Memorial Day 2020, sparking the largest wave of protests against racial injustice in generations. The initiative would have replaced the police force with a Department of Public Safety charged with undertaking “a comprehensive public health” approach that would increase funding for violence prevention, dispatch mental health experts in response to some emergency calls and include police officers “if necessary.”

But no other contest in this off-year election season received the level of national attention — and money — as the governor’s race in Virginia, a state with broad swaths of college-educated suburban voters who are increasingly influential in swaying control of Congress and the White House.

A former co-CEO at the Carlyle Group with a lanky, 6′6″ build that once made him a reserve forward on Rice University’s basketball team, Youngkin poured vast amounts of his personal fortune into a campaign that spent more than $59 million. Favoring fleece vests, Youngkin sought to cut the image of a genial suburban dad, often opening meetings with prayer.

Youngkin ran confidently on a conservative platform. He opposed a major clean energy mandate the state passed two years ago and objected to abortion in most circumstances.

He also backed a business-friendly approach to the state’s economy, opposed mask and vaccine mandates, promised to expand Virginia’s limited charter schools and ban critical race theory, an academic framework that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people. In recent months, it has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.

McAuliffe tried to energize the Democratic base by highlighting abortion, denouncing a new Texas law that largely banned the procedure and warning that Youngkin would seek to implement similar restrictions.

Youngkin didn’t discuss abortion much publicly, and a liberal activist caught him on tape saying the issue couldn’t help him during the campaign. He said an election win would allow the party to “start going on offense” on the issue.

While McAuliffe pulled on the star power of a host of national Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and ex-Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams, Youngkin largely campaigned on his own, focusing on issues he said were important to Virginians.

Youngkin proved perhaps most successful in deflecting McAuliffe’s efforts to tie him to Trump and the former president’s divisive political style.

Even Biden, who made his second trip of the 2021 campaign to suburban Arlington just a week before Election Day on McAuliffe’s behalf, hammered the point, calling Youngkin a “Trump acolyte.”

“Extremism can come in many forms. It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest,” Biden said, likening protesters in January’ s deadly insurrection to Younkin’s favorite campaign attire.

Former Vice President Mike Pence visited the state, and Trump staged a Virginia tele-rally on Election Day eve, but Youngkin shied away from campaigning with national Republican stars.

Polls showed a tight race after McAuliffe said during a late September debate that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” That prompted Youngkin to run hundreds of TV ads on the statement and to focus on his own pledges to make school curricula less “un-American” and to overhaul policies on transgender students and school bathrooms.

Asked about issues more generally, voters saw the economy as most important, followed by the coronavirus pandemic, according to AP VoteCast, a statewide survey. Some 34% of Virginia voters ranked the economy as their No. 1 priority, compared to 17% saying COVID-19 and 14% choosing education. Those issues outranked health care, climate change, racism and abortion in the survey.

The race took an especially bitter turn last week, when Youngkin ran an ad featuring a mother and GOP activist who eight years ago led an effort to ban “Beloved,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Black Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, from classrooms.

McAuliffe accused Youngkin of uncorking a “racist dog whistle,” but Youngkin dismissed that as exaggerated rhetoric from a Democratic campaign rendered “desperate” by polls. He said Virginia parents knew what was really at stake — and so did families across the country, a nod to how tapping into parental activism could work for the GOP next year and in future election cycles.

“America is watching Virginia,” Youngkin said as part of his closing argument. “And America needs us to vote for them too.”

This story is developing. Refresh for updates.

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