The 2021 Virginia Gubernatorial race was one of national proportions. A headline for The Guardian a week before the election read, “Why this governor’s race is shaping up as a referendum on the Biden presidency.” The Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, brought in national figures like President Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams to campaign for him. The Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, held fundraisers with the likes of Ted Cruz and Nikki Haley. News reporter Tyler Arnold, in The Center Square, noted that money poured in from around the country, with over $300M raised during the campaign, making it the most expensive race in state history.
Ultimately, in a state that President Biden won by 10 points, Glenn Youngkin bested his opponent by nearly three. This was a dramatic shift from two years prior when Democrats swept both the House and Senate, giving them complete control of the government for the first time since 1993. Virginia had not voted for a Republican president since 2004, with the GOP suffering two back-to-back losses in the 2013 and 2017 gubernatorial elections.
After the 2019 midterm election, it appeared Virginia was all but blue, even prompting Gov. Ralph Northam to tell USA Today, “I’m here to officially declare today, Nov. 5, 2019, that Virginia is officially blue.”
Today, the Republican party is poised to recapture the Senate this year, already controlling all three executive offices and the House of Delegates. With the shock of the 2021 election behind them, many voters wonder what it means for the future of state politics. Is Virginia now a red state? Will it revert to being blue?
History tells us Virginia is likely to remain a purple state. Virginia is notorious for voting against the party that holds the White House. In fact, since 1977, the governor’s race has gone against the party of the sitting president in every election, with one exception in 2013. Virginia politics is one of dramatic pendulum swings. This means that Republicans can expect to lose more when they hold the White House and vice-versa.
The 2021 race exposed how both parties can undoubtedly improve their stock. For one, Youngkin made incredible gains among suburban voters that voted for President Biden. He did so by focusing on kitchen-table issues like education, supporting law enforcement, jobs, and more. His opponent, however, focused on tying Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, which did not have its intended impact.
Last month, McAuliffe famously mentioned Trump 18 times in a 12-minute interview with CNN about the election. Republicans can continue to gain suburban voters by refocusing from the traditional narrative that is being spun about them at the time (i.e., Trump or a national story). Democrats, however, can focus less on tying Republicans to Trump and begin talking more about kitchen-table issues once again. When McAuliffe declared that parents should not have a say in education, that severely damaged his brand and arguably sunk his campaign. By appealing to suburban voters and communicating that they are, in fact, not against parents, they can begin to repair their image.
Ultimately, the most significant advantage in a Virginia election is to not control the White House. More nuanced, though, it appears Virginia voters care more about local issues that affect them and their families. If 2021 showed nothing else, it is that making a state race one about a national figure and not about what is impacting individuals is not a winning formula. The party that best represents those families will do well. Although the ever-changing status of Virginia politics may be frustrating to some, it is a good sign that one-party rule is unlikely and that politicians must be in touch with ordinary people to win.