Once a hotly-contested swing state, Virginia had voted more Democratic every passing year. No Republican presidential candidate had won the state since George W. Bush in 2004, and President Joe Biden defeated former president Donald Trump by more than 10 percentage points last year. Democrats gained unified control of Virginia’s government for the first time in more than 20 years in 2019. Many said Virginia was hardly a swing state anymore.
All of that fell flat on Nov. 2.
Earlier this month, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin narrowly defeated former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the polls by about 2 percentage points. Youngkin, who has never before held elected office, focused the race on education, saying parents have a “fundamental right” to be involved in their students’ schooling. McAuliffe, in a Sept. 28 debate, told Youngkin he “do[esn’t] think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” drawing further attacks from Youngkin. Youngkin also said he would ban teaching critical race theory if elected, drawing on the national conservative opposition to the once-obscure academic theory about the present role of race and racism in society, and he attacked Democrats for their opposition to reopening schools last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Virginia is one of just a few states that holds statewide elections in odd years, rather than in conjunction with federal presidential or congressional elections. Instead, Virginia’s governor is elected every four years in the year following a presidential election, making it an early test of a newly-elected presidential party’s chances for the following year in the midterms.
In another quirk of the Virginia electoral system, governors are prohibited from serving consecutive terms. This means that McAuliffe couldn’t run for a second term in 2017, but could this year; and that incumbent Gov. Ralph Northam (D) could not run for reelection this cycle, but could potentially try to regain the office in 2025.
McAuliffe tried to connect Youngkin and his policies to Trump — who lost by a large margin in the state — in order to convince swing voters who voted for Biden perhaps reluctantly not to support Youngkin, but this strategy evidently was not enough for the Democrats to triumph. He highlighted Youngkin’s support for an “audit” of voting machines in the state, which he argued showed Youngkin’s support of Trump’s refusal to accept his loss in the 2020 presidential election. (Youngkin has said that Biden won the election legitimately, though he did not say so until after the Republican primary ended). McAuliffe also emphasized his support of Biden’s national economic agenda and touted his record from his previous term.
Polls narrowed in the weeks leading up to Election Day, reaching very small margins that closely mirrored the actual results. According to the final FiveThirtyEight polling average for the race, Youngkin improved from a deficit of almost 8 percentage points in early August to a one-point lead on Nov. 2.
Democrats also lost several seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, narrowly losing control of the chamber.
The Virginia gubernatorial race status as one of the first competitive races after presidential elections traditionally makes it a test of the president’s popularity, success, and chances in congressional elections the following year, potentially foreshadowing Democratic challenges going into 2022.