11 thoughts after Republicans’ big night in Virginia and New Jersey

Replicating what Youngkin did won’t be easy for GOP

A campaign sign for Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin stands Tuesday at the Alexandria City Hall in Alexandria, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A campaign sign for Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin stands Tuesday at the Alexandria City Hall in Alexandria, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 3, 2021 at 12:51am

ANALYSIS — Even though the Virginia gubernatorial race is just one race in one state (OK, commonwealth), Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory will reverberate around the country and set the early stage for the 2022 midterm elections. 

Considering the next big Election Day is a year away, there will be plenty of time to digest the results from Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere. But here are a few initial takeaways.

The Democratic majorities were at risk before the Virginia result, and they’re at risk after Virginia

This would have been a main point even if Democrat Terry McAuliffe had pulled out a narrow win. Democrats have narrow majorities in the House and the Senate — a net GOP gain of just five House seats and one Senate seat would put them in the majority — and midterm elections are typically poor for the president’s party. That strong historical trend, combined with President Joe Biden’s slumping job rating, is a recipe for a good (or great) GOP year in 2022, no matter what happened this week. 

Even a narrow Youngkin loss would have been good news for the GOP

The fact that Youngkin was competitive in a state Biden won handily in 2020 is positive news for the GOP. Republicans don’t need to win states or districts that Biden carried by 10 points (as he did Virginia) in order to win back the Senate and the House. The fact that Youngkin won with a bit to spare is the icing on the cake for the GOP and will just embolden Republicans. 

Listen to the politicians

No matter what any political analyst or journalist says happened in the election, what matters more is what politicians and party strategists think happened in the election. Because what politicians think happened will drive their future behavior. It will be at least a few days before we know whether progressives see Tuesday’s results as a repudiation. It’s also unclear how Republicans view Donald Trump’s role in their recent success, considering Youngkin effectively kept the former president at arm’s length in the final months of the campaign. But we will be hearing a lot more about critical race theory from the GOP side over the next year. The theory, which argues that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, has been presented in some programs for teachers but, according to the AP, is not being taught in public elementary schools.

Candidates and campaigns matter

Youngkin’s personal wealth allowed him to spend to parity with McAuliffe. Previous unsuccessful GOP candidates were often outspent. Youngkin also effectively defined himself with TV ads during the summer, particularly with independent voters, making it more difficult for Democrats to demonize him during the home stretch. In the end, Youngkin finished the race with 52 percent favorable/44 percent unfavorable rating, according to the CNN exit poll, compared with McAuliffe’s 45 percent favorable/51 percent unfavorable. 

Replicating Youngkin won’t be easy

Youngkin blazed a legitimate path to victory in territory that had previously rejected Trump by keeping some distance from the former president. While Trump will claim credit for Youngkin’s win, his absence from Virginia and not requiring Youngkin to kiss the ring allowed the GOP nominee to appeal to the independent voters he needed to win. That won’t be as easy in 2022 for Republican candidates who have to navigate competitive primaries, and profess loyalty to Trump, before moving on to the general election. While some GOP candidates appear focused on mirroring Trump’s style, Youngkin’s performance as a pragmatic unifier is an alternate path. 

Partisanship is alive and well

According to the CNN exit poll, 96 percent of GOP voters supported Youngkin and 96 percent of Democratic voters backed McAuliffe. That’s similar to last year when 96 percent of Democratic voters in Virginia supported Biden and 90 percent of GOP voters supported Trump. On Tuesday, independent voters went for Youngkin 54 percent to 45 percent, which was a big turnaround from Biden’s 57 percent to 38 percent victory with independents a year ago. 

Virginia was an outlier compared with other 2021 races

While it’s a very small sample size, the results in Virginia were significantly different from other races this year that pitted Republicans against Democrats. Republicans could have potentially won the special election for New Mexico’s 1st District or recalled Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California. But in the end, both areas performed about as expected, while Youngkin dramatically overperformed. So what changed? Biden’s job approval rating is significantly worse now compared with the beginning of June or even mid-September when those races took place.

Republicans could smell an opportunity in New Jersey

The Republican Governors Association spent $4 million late in the race in the face of data that showed Biden slipping significantly with independents. Private GOP polling in the final couple weeks showed Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy leading Republican Jack Ciattarelli by 4 points and 6 points in two separate surveys. But GOP strategists didn’t run around making their polling public for fear of alerting Democrats to their vulnerability.

Dare I say, Tuesday was a win for polling?

Youngkin led by about 1 point (47.9 percent to 47 percent) in the final FiveThirtyEight polling average and by about 2 points (48.5 percent to 46.8 percent) in the final RealClearPolitics average. Private polling showed a close race as well. Youngkin is on pace to win by 3 points. That’s pretty darn good in the face of all the criticism. And it’s more evidence to my working hypothesis that polling is more difficult when Donald Trump’s name is on the ballot.

Suburbs still matter

Even after multiple cycles of movement toward Democrats, it’s clear the suburbs aren’t firmly in their column. At a surface level, when suburban voters are focused on Trump, they vote Democratic. When they’re focused on Democrats in leadership and potential Democratic overreach, it’s more of a mixed result. That’s why the framing of the election and capturing voters’ focus is critical in any race. Biden and congressional Democrats are reminding suburban voters why they voted Republican before Trump came along.

The midterm elections are a year away

This might be the only sliver of good news for Democrats. It’s fair if Democrats want to blame Biden’s poor job approval rating for their party’s implosion in Virginia. But there’s no guarantee he’ll be in significantly better shape next year. Voters could potentially think differently about federal races compared to state ones, as Stuart Rothenberg pointed out in his recent CQ Roll Call column. But Tuesday’s results showed that Democrats have a lot of work to do.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.