RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Terry McAuliffe got the job done.
With the help of some prominent campaign surrogates, the former governor drove up turnout for an off-year election and received more votes than any other Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia’s history.
The problem for McAuliffe?
First-time candidate Glenn Youngkin rallied even more people to the polls, ending up with the most votes ever in a Virginia gubernatorial election and helping Republicans shift the state’s political landscape in the process.
Democrats’ recent success in Virginia fed the idea that high voter turnout leads to comfortable statewide wins for the party, a belief debunked by Republican voters this year.
More votes were cast in this year’s Virginia governor’s race than in any other gubernatorial election in the state’s history. Nearly 3.3 million of Virginia’s 5.9 million registered voters cast a ballot for governor, the highest turnout percentage the commonwealth has seen for a governor’s race since 1993.
With Democrats in control of Virginia’s top three elected offices and the state legislature, enthusiasm for the party and its policies faced a vital test on Election Day. The results won’t be certified until next week, but returns clearly show the night couldn’t have gone much better for Republicans.
Led by Youngkin, the party swept Virginia’s three statewide elections and appear to have secured a majority in the House of Delegates, although recounts are possible in two races. Before the 2021 election, Republicans had not won statewide in Virginia in a dozen years.
Youngkin received about 63,000 more votes than McAuliffe, who got 1.6 million votes in the election. Despite being less than 2% apart, McAuliffe wouldn’t be within the margin to request a recount even if he picked up the 23,000 votes that went to third-party candidate Princess Blanding and all the write-in votes.
“Looking back I think that we can definitely see differences in the effectiveness of the campaigns,” said Richard Meagher, 8News political analyst and a politics professor at Randolph-Macon College. “I think the knives are out for Terry McAuliffe and the Democrats, that they could have done a much better job. And on the other side of things, there’s a lot of praise for Republicans, and particularly the Youngkin campaign.”
Gov.-elect Youngkin and Republicans spoke about education, cutting taxes and other “kitchen-table issues” while on the campaign trail. McAuliffe, Meagher pointed out, opted to focus more on abortion rights and trying to link his opponent to former President Donald Trump, who was an unpopular candidate in Virginia.
McAuliffe didn’t appear eager to address major policy reforms passed by Virginia Democrats while campaigning, Meagher said, citing the repeal of the death penalty and marijuana legalization. But Meagher noted that McAuliffe could have also suffered from President Biden’s presence in the White House.
“It’s hard to look at both what happened in Virginia and New Jersey, where there was a shift of about 10 points towards the Republican column. In New Jersey, which is an even longer standing blue state than Virginia, that just the Democratic brand was just so tarnished this year,” Meagher said.
Before Terry McAuliffe’s win in 2013, the political party that held the White House had lost Virginia’s governor’s race for 36 years. Biden carried Virginia by 10% last November, but his approval rating while in office has continued to dip since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While polls show disapproval of Biden’s job performance now, he did outperform McAuliffe in every locality in Virginia in terms of percentage. Youngkin fared better than Trump in every locality as well, including some by double-digit percentages.
Youngkin flipped Chesterfield County, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, but he also did much better than Trump did in Loudoun County and enticed a large chunk of voters from Republican strongholds and rural areas in Virginia.
In the 2017 gubernatorial election, Republican Ed Gillespie received almost 28,000 votes in Hanover County, more than 20,000 in Roanoke County and 5,000 in Mecklenburg County. Youngkin was able to get nearly 40,000 votes in Hanover, just over 28,000 in Roanoke County and almost 8,000 in Mecklenburg.
Youngkin’s campaign has received national attention for possibly laying out a plan for Republicans running in competitive states in the post-Trump era. On top of that, the party has also been getting commended for their decisions leading up to the election, particularly the choice to hold an unassembled convention to pick the party’s statewide nominees.
“You have to give them credit. Even if they sort of lucked into Youngkin and lucked into some sort of national environment things that went their way, it’s possible that they could have pushed for something more of a primary that would have produced a more of a fringe candidate,” Meagher said.
Whether or not Democrats come roaring back to revitalize Virginia’s recent status as a blue state is uncertain, but it’s clear that, at the moment, it is more purple than once believed. The first test will be next year’s midterms, when all 11 congressional seats will be up for grabs.
Even with big wins for the GOP this year, Meagher said he believes the blue lean in Virginia should continue but that Republican victories shouldn’t be ruled out.
“If Democrats in Virginia can’t find anybody to step up that energizes the base, then certainly Republicans can win. They’ve shown that,” he said. “But I still think that the sort-of default we should look at is just the numbers favor the Democrats, and as long as they don’t screw it up, they should be able to win.”
All state election results in Virginia are unofficial until they are certified by the State Board of Elections on Nov. 15.