While some political observers see the Republican win in the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday as a possible blueprint for the GOP to take back the U.S. House and Senate in next year’s midterm elections, others aren’t so sure it can be duplicated.
“This is a rare look we have early in the process to try to get some glimpse of what might happen next year,” said Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. “It is a win for the Republicans there. But it’s really the next step that will give us a view of what either party can make of it or will make of it.”
Glenn Youngkin is the first Republican elected governor in Virginia since 2009, narrowly defeating Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who held the job from 2014 to 2018.
The gubernatorial victory gives the GOP a potential formula for how to exploit President Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities and evade the shadow of former President Donald Trump in Democratic-leaning states, according to The New York Times.
Youngkin, 54, a wealthy former private equity executive making his first run for office, elevated education and taxes while projecting a suburban-dad demeanor to demonstrate he was different from Trump without saying so outright, the Times reported.
Republican candidates have also focused voters on a set of social issues, like police funding and so-called identity politics, in which high-profile progressive positions are sometimes out of step with public opinion.
“Big Republican turnout and the suburbs move back to where they were pre-Trump,” Jared Leopold, a former Democratic Governors Association spokesman, told the Washington Post. “I think the education piece was a big part of it. Youngkin had a message about education that was framed in a positive way for parents.”
A ‘thermostatic’ reaction?
Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, said he would be wary of reading too much into the details of campaign strategy based on what happened in Virginia.
The party out of power always does better in off-year elections as voters show a “thermostatic” reaction to the party that won the previous election at the national level, he said, adding neither party is immune, and that structural pattern is probably far more important than any single campaign tactic.
“But last night did demonstrate that Republicans will turn out to vote even when Donald Trump is not on the ballot, and in fact, they can perform much better than he did when his more divisive rhetoric and issue positions are not part of the equation,” Karpowitz said. “Youngkin executed a difficult balancing act — both motivating the Trump base and simultaneously pitching himself as a moderate to suburban voters.”
Not every candidate will be able to strike that balance, he said, noting Trump never appeared with Youngkin but worked behind the scenes to motivate his most loyal voters.
“Whether he’s willing to continue to play that behind-the-scenes role remains to be seen,” Karpowitz said.
Still, unless something unexpected happens between now and then, Republicans will face a favorable electoral environment and Democrats are likely to lose seats in Congress in 2022.
Perry said Youngkin gave voters a reason to choose a GOP candidate, noting he framed his campaign around education, parental involvement in schools, the economy’s impact on families and other local issues Republicans want to reclaim.
“Republicans are going to look at this race and say this is a preview of what is to come, not just for how Youngkin did with Republicans but where he got his support, those rural areas, the suburbs, the places where Republicans are trying to make some inroads,” he said.
Biden bested Trump by 10% in the 2020 presidential election in Virginia but has seen his approval ratings plummet across the country.
“The Democrats are going to try to show that this is not a reflection of how people feel about the party or their policies or the difficulties they’re having getting certain legislation through Congress,” Perry said. “But without question, the Democrats are huddling to say what do we do to strategize for this next election cycle and this is not a view at all of what’s coming.”
What Utah’s Republican congressmen think
Members of Utah’s all-Republican congressional delegation say Youngkin’s victory bodes well for their party.
The Virginia race was a referendum on the Biden presidency, said Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah. Voters, he said, sent a clear message that Americans are tired of failed Democratic policies and ideological overreach.
“From the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, to the stifling economic mandates, to the silencing of parents when it comes to their own children’s education, President Biden’s agenda is not producing the results we need,” Stewart said. “Involving the government into every aspect of American lives is never the answer.”
Youngkin’s campaign showed that Americans care about policy that empowers people, said Utah GOP Rep. Blake Moore.
“The country is hungry for aspirational, pro-growth, and inclusive leadership. Virginia is no different. Their voters proved that on election night,” he said.
Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, said the Virginia victory reinforces a core Republican message:
“Parents are the ones in charge of their kids’ education, not the coastal elites who harbor nothing but disdain for our values,” he said. “America is a great country and I will fight to ensure it stays great for the next generation.”
Appearing Wednesday on Fox Business, Owens said, “We’re finally seeing what happens when Americans wake up.
“I’ve never been more optimistic about our country than I am today because I knew that once Americans woke up, we the people woke up, and started talking to each other across party lines, as Al Davis used to say ‘Just win, baby,’ and that’s what happened last night and I expect a lot more.”
Owens said Youngkin’s win energized Republicans’ voters for 2020 as they see Democrats drive up inflation, mishandle the flood of immigrants at the border with Mexico and ignore the rule of law.
“Now that we’re getting people coming off the sidelines, out of the stands, on the field of action, we’re going to see more activity, more drifting back to our way of life,” he said.