By Richard Meagher
Virginia Republicans are flying high right now. After an unprecedented but ultimately successful “unassembled convention,” the party’s ticket for statewide office is set. Party leaders are especially excited about their nominee for governor, Glenn Youngkin, a tall and telegenic newcomer to politics with especially deep pockets.
With lieutenant governor nominee Winsome Sears, a veteran and Jamaican immigrant, and Cuban-American Jason Miyares for attorney general, the Republicans have rightly crowed that their ticket will likely end up featuring more diversity than the Democrats. (Although just like last year’s national election, both party’s tickets look to be led by rich White dudes, so let’s not get too excited.)
Republicans in Virginia also are hopeful that history is on their side. In the past, the national mood often swings against the party in power after a presidential election. Since Virginia unusually runs statewide elections in odd years, 2021 offers an early test of whether the country is turning towards Republicans.
Still, with all these advantages, I find myself fairly skeptical about the Republicans’ chances here. I’m much more bullish on the Democrats, for three big reasons.
Virginia exhibits all the features of a solid blue state these days. Biden’s victory here last year was never in doubt. His winning margin of 10 percentage points probably overstates Democratic voting power, as never-Trump Republicans probably held their nose and pulled the lever for the Democrat. But Trump still pulled plenty of Republican support elsewhere in the country. For example, Trump won North Carolina, a purplish southern state that until recently appeared similar to Virginia.
I think the demographic changes in the state have simply put too many voters into the Democratic column. And without the voting rights restrictions that Republicans have resorted to in states like Georgia, the system will not be rigged to overcome those demographic advantages.
Dems Gotta Dem – Except not in Virginia
National Democratic Party politicians are often criticized for timidity. Cowed by conservative media and Republican hardball tactics, they often seem more interested in appearing reasonable than actually solving problems. But here in Virginia, Democrats are strangely behaving like they actually won an election or two. Their ranks swelled by a new wave of progressive legislators, the party has pushed through much-needed reforms in a number of areas from voting rights to drug legalization to firearms restrictions.
Democrats often suffer, both nationally and in Virginia, in off year and mid-term elections, as the more dedicated Republican base tends to turn out in greater numbers. Some observers argue that this trend may continue this year as the absence of Trump from the White House saps the energy and urgency from the Democratic Party electorate. I am not so sure; I think voters do respond to policy wins, and actually like it when politicians deliver on their promises. This fall will be a good test for the Democrats nationally on whether the “blue wave” was merely a reaction to Trump or a true governing mandate.
Republican Fear and Loathing
Glenn Youngkin’s wealth played a big part in his victory, but we have seen rich guys crash and burn before. (Remember when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz ran for President? Me neither.) Youngkin managed to outflank better-known politicians and party insiders, suggesting he deployed his resources wisely. He also stayed out of specific policy debates, appealing to his business acumen and — perhaps crucially in a party where evangelicals still dominate the base — his religious faith.
Still, the tactics that served him well in this year’s odd convention will be harder to follow in a general election. The one issue that Youngkin did wade into was “election integrity,” his carefully-chosen code-word to appeal to conspiracy theorists who feel Biden’s win in last year’s national election was somehow illegitimate. Since winning the nomination, Youngkin famously noted in an interview that “of course” Biden was the president. This admission led to a round of media reports on how Youngkin is already “pivoting” to the general election, plus multiple analyses that Republicans have a solid chance to take back the governor’s mansion thanks to Youngkin’s moderate appeal and pro-business message.
Only that is not how Republican Party politics works, not anymore. Conservatives have spent decades developing a politics of fear and outrage. Using well-coordinated networks that circulate targeted talking points and narratives, conservative politicians, operatives and media figures gin up controversies like “cancel culture” and “the border crisis” for both political and financial gain.
Which brings us to “critical race theory,” the national Republicans’ latest (and literal) bête noire. In the real world, critical race theory refers to a recent tradition of political and legal thought, rarely read outside of academic circles. For Republicans, issuing this warning has become an easy way for them to paint any effort to combat racial discrimination as left-wing intellectual gobbledygook. More importantly, their complaints about theory reflect a cynical and transparent effort to stoke up White outrage.
Race is the likely wedge issue Republicans will use to try to claw back the suburbs over the next few years.
Youngkin is already on board, incorporating this racial rhetoric into his stump speech and in appearances on conservative media outlets. Many observers have noted that Virginia Democrats are trying to tie the Republican ticket to Trump, and portray Youngkin as a right-wing extremist.
They may find an unlikely ally in this effort in Youngkin himself. The Republican nominee may find it hard to present himself as some kind of common-sense, business-oriented moderate, not because of his opponents but because of the base of his own party. They will expect outrage, and electoral logic may require him to deliver it.
Get ready for a long, long fall.
Richard Meagher is an associate professor of political science and director of social entrepreneurship at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.