Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart. (Katrina Tilbury/Capital News Service)
2018 Republican Senate candidate Corey Stewart. (Katrina Tilbury/Capital News Service)

Republican candidates in recent Virginia statewide elections went all in on a bet with little actuarial upside. They hoped that by hammering on issues that riled up older, mostly white voters they could pull out wins in an increasingly diverse state.

The problem? Not only did they lose the elections, they’re about to lose the future, too.

Data from exit polls during the past three elections shows Republican candidates dramatically underperforming among young voters in Virginia, which suggests grim long-term prospects for the state party.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump soundly lost the youngest cohort of Virginia voters (18 to 29 years old) by 18 percentage points. Ed Gillespie fared far worse in the 2017 governor’s race. Possibly galvanized by their distaste for Trump, 69 percent of voters in the 18 to 29 age group chose Democrat Ralph Northam, according to Washington Post exit polling.

The 2018 midterm numbers don’t look much better for Republicans. Tim Kaine beat Corey Stewart by 36 percentage points in the 18 to 29 age group, and by 38 percentage points among the very youngest voters, 18 to 24-year-olds.

According to a study from the Pew Research Center, young voters hold more liberal views in part because they’re more racially and ethnically diverse than older generations. But, as the report points out, diversity alone doesn’t account for their greater affinity for Democratic candidates.

Using Virginia’s recent election as a case study, the missing explanatory factor quickly becomes clear: the force driving young voters to support Democratic candidates is Republicans.

Polling done before the midterms found that the most important concerns for millennial likely voters included social issues such as immigration, racism and the potential overturning of Roe vs. Wade. At 22 to 37 years old, millennials are the generation that mostly closely overlaps with the young voter cohort in the exit polls.

On the issues millennials care about most, Republicans don’t just hold viewpoints that are antithetical to the majority of young people; they’ve been relentlessly flogging these positions in an effort to turn out older voters. Corey Stewart’s unsuccessful Senate campaign demonstrates the depth of the divide.

Pew’s numbers show that millennials are the generation most open to immigration, with 79 percent agreeing immigrants strengthen the country. Stewart, on the other hand, hyped up fear of immigrants, warning of a (nonexistent) “scourge of illegal aliens who are preying on” U.S. citizens.

Not surprisingly for such a diverse generation, millennials’ views on race are the most progressive as well; 68 percent of them believe more changes are needed “to give blacks equal rights with whites.” In contrast, Stewart’s warm embrace of Confede­rate symbols hearkened back to an era of greater discrimination.

Differences in generational views on abortion are slightly less pronounced, but young people are still the most likely to believe it should be legal, with 62 percent of millennials in support. Stewart called for tougher restrictions. Perhaps you’re noticing the pattern here.

When it comes to health care, one of the most prominent issues in the midterms, Millennials are again the most liberal cohort, with 67 percent saying that the government is responsible for making sure all Americans have coverage. Stewart pledged to repeal Obamacare, which would reduce the government’s role in ensuring coverage.

This generational disconnect is not just a Corey Stewart problem. Ed Gillespie espoused similar positions, albeit with a somewhat less aggressive tone, in last year’s race, and many Republicans across country hewed closely to Stewart’s positions, if not his confrontational style, in the midterms.

With this kind of posturing driving millennials’ political alignment toward Democrats in Virginia — and nationwide — the electoral consequences aren’t just a theoretical, far-off threat. Millennials are poised to become the largest generation in the electorate before long, and while their turnout at the polls in 2018 may only have increased by a few percentage points compared to the last midterms, surging participation in early voting suggests their overall voting rate could grow.

The data makes a convincing case that if Republicans want a shot at competing in future Virginia statewide elections, they’ll need to moderate their positions and rhetoric to appeal to younger voters. If they don’t, they may be out of contention indefinitely.

But liberals shouldn’t simply rejoice at this turn of the tide. Responsive government depends on competitive races, so it’s in our best interest as Virginians that future Republican candidates take this warning to heart.

Views of opinion contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Virginia Mercury.