Youngkin wins major upset as GOP roars back in Virginia

Republicans also appear to have taken House of Delegates

By: and - November 3, 2021 12:53 am

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes the stage at an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021 in Chantilly, Virginia. Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the gubernatorial race that pitted Youngkin against Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Republican Glenn Youngkin narrowly defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday’s election for governor, a major upset on a night that saw the Virginia GOP make sweeping gains after a nearly decade-long losing streak in statewide elections. Several news outlets called the race for Youngkin shortly after 12:30 a.m.

Republicans Winsome Sears and Jason Miyares also held leads over their opponents in the races for lieutenant governor and attorney general and the GOP appeared on pace to take the House of Delegates, where they lost their majority just two years ago, according to preliminary results.  The GOP appears to have captured 52 seats, obliterating Democrats’ 55-45 majority.

Youngkin, a Northern Virginia businessman few had heard of a year ago, seized on parents’ various frustrations over K-12 schools, including hyping the incursion of “critical race theory” to overtake McAuliffe, a well-connected former governor who sought to win a second term largely by stoking fears about the lingering presence of former President Donald Trump. 

Speaking to a crowd of supporters at a hotel in Chantilly, Youngkin said his victory is a defining moment in Virginia politics.

“Together we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth, and friends, we are going to start that transformation on day one,” he said. “Our kids can’t wait. We work in real-people time, not government time.”

Youngkin pledged to invest in education, including promting school choice, and “reestablish excellence in our schools.”

He hit on campaign promises to eliminate the grocery tax, cut taxes on retirement income of Virginia’s veterans and raise salaries for police as well protecting qualified immunity, which critics contend protects law enforcement from consequences of misconduct and abuse.

“This is our Virginia to build together, and we are going to work on day one,” he said. “Together we can build a new day, a new day for Virginia for yes, we soar, and we never settle.”

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes the stage at an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021 in Chantilly, Virginia. Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the gubernatorial race that pitted Youngkin against Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The loss for McAuliffe, with gubernatorial-year turnout near record highs in a state President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points, puts a Republican back in Virginia’s Executive Mansion for the first time since former Gov. Bob McDonnell left office in 2014 and is sure to send shockwaves through national politics, signaling a bleak outlook for Democrats in next year’s congressional midterms.

Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial elections have a long history of going against the party that just won the White House, one exception being McAuliffe’s 2013 win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. In some ways, Tuesday’s result was a return to that pattern, reflecting Biden’s slipping approval ratings and general voter frustration that allowed Youngkin to pitch himself as a change-minded outsider.

McAuliffe entered the contest with numerous advantages as an experienced state leader known for his prodigious fundraising prowess and a relatively smooth first term as a centrist, pro-business Democrat. He cruised to a primary victory this summer over several more progressive opponents, including Sen. Jennifer McClellan and former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, both of whom stood to make history as the first Black woman elected governor of any state.

Instead, it will be the Jamaican-born Sears making history as the first woman of color to serve in statewide office, defeating Democrat Hala Ayala to become lieutenant governor, a job that mostly involves presiding over the state Senate.

Republican nominee for lieutenant governor Winsome Sears speaks during a GOP rally at Eagles Nest Rockin’ Country Bar in Chesapeake, Va., June 5, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

“I’m telling you what you are looking at is the American dream,” Sears said. “What we are going to do is we are now going to be about the business of the commonwealth, we are going to fully fund our Black colleges, universities.”

Miyares, a state delegate and son of a Cuban immigrant, will become the first Latino to serve in the state’s top legal job.

Republican nominee for attorney general Jason Miyares speaks during a GOP rally at Eagles Nest Rockin’ Country Bar in Chesapeake, Va., June 5, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

McAuliffe made a brief speech around 10:15 p.m. thanking supporters gathered in a hotel ballroom in Tyson’s Corner. But he did not concede, saying all Virginians’ votes should be counted.

“We’ve still got a lot of votes to count,” he said.

Many of McAuliffe’s efforts to portray Youngkin as a Trumpian threat to Virginia didn’t seem to have the desired impact, with many Republican voters shrugging it off and noting Youngkin never campaigned with Trump, despite Democrats’ best efforts to bait the ex-president into make a full-fledged appearance in Virginia.

Beyond the question of Trump’s presence, Youngkin was able to parry some of Democrats’ most common attack lines. 

When McAuliffe accused Youngkin of being complicit in Trump’s election lies, the Youngkin campaign pointed out McAuliffe has a long history of casting doubt on the 2000 presidential election, which came down to the U.S. Supreme Court and Florida’s infamous hanging chads. As McAuliffe tried to characterize Youngkin as a predatory capitalist over his private equity career with the Carlyle Group, the Democrat had to answer for why invested his own money with Youngkin’s company. When McAuliffe warned Youngkin would bring a Texas-style abortion ban to Virginia, Youngkin said he would not, in fact, support such a sweeping law, but would favor other abortion restrictions.

When McAuliffe announced his comeback bid at a Richmond elementary school late last year, he made education the centerpiece of his campaign, promising to invest billions in the state’s K-12 schools, boost teacher pay and tackle racial inequities. 

But it was McAuliffe’s infamous debate-stage remark declaring “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” that gave Youngkin an opening to go on offense on educational issues, portraying Democrats as out-of-touch with parents upset over shuttered schools, mask and vaccine mandates, sexually explicit reading material and how issues of race and gender should be handled in public schools.

Terry McAuliffe campaigns for governor in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

McAuliffe and his allies were mostly dismissive of those topics, portraying pushback at local school board meetings as manufactured, right-wing outrage not worthy of engagement.

But a story of a mishandled sexual assault case in the Loudoun County Public Schools, which came during consideration of a transgender-inclusive bathroom policy but appeared to have no direct connection to that policy, was on the minds of many Republican voters after getting widespread coverage in conservative media outlets. Youngkin battled McAuliffe to a surprisingly split result in Loudoun, a once swingy county in the D.C. exurbs Biden won by 25 points last year but shifted sharply in Republicans’ favor.

At the McAuliffe watch party, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, struck an upbeat tone as her majority hung in the balance, saying she was confident her members ran issues-based campaigns highlighting the impact Democratic majorities have had on Virginians’ lives.

“Virginians care about the issues that we ran on,” Filler-Corn said. “Viginians care about the accomplishments that we’ve made.”

Asked whether she feels Democrats were outflanked on education, she said she saw “deception and misinformation” from Republicans on school issues.

“We’ve seen that play out before,” she said. “And I’m afraid we’ll see that in the future.”

At a polling place in Richmond steps from the pedestal where a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis once stood on Monument Avenue, voter Randy Lynch keenly recalled the 2020 summer protests centered around Monument Avenue’s statues to Confederate figures, including Davis and Robert E. Lee, all of which have since been removed.

He said he was disturbed that Youngkin campaigned against the supposed teaching of critical race theory, a doctrine that systemic racism has always pervaded U.S. institutions. Though public school districts across the state insist they do not teach it, the term has become a conservative catch-all for controversial equity and anti-racism initiatives.

“It’s a dog whistle, an issue in disguise, where people say things without actually saying them,” Lynch said. “They’re preying on people’s fear and their resistance to change.”

Lauren Burke, a former aide to Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax who attended the Democratic watch party, said she felt the party failed to come up with an effective Black voter strategy beyond bringing in high-profile Black politicians into the state.

If the House were to flip to GOP control, she said, the state Senate, where Democrats are set to have a 21-19 advantage with Sears breaking ties, will become key to state policymaking. A few moderate Democrats, Burke said, will wield enormous power over the legislative agenda.

“Senator Joe Morrissey and Senator Lynwood Lewis and Senator Chap Petersen will become the Joe Manchins of the Virginia state Senate,” Burke said. “There’s absolutely no doubt about that.”

The floor of the Virginia House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

GOP takes the House

The House of Delegates appeared to be headed back into the hands of Republicans, who exceeded their expectations for an election in which they had privately said they would consider any flipped seats a victory. Likewise, the Democrats’ losses were far worse than the two- to three- seat hit many in the party had anticipated “on a bad night.”

Most of Republican’s gains came in seats they lost amid successive blue waves in 2017 and 2019 during Trump’s presidency.

Jason Ballard, a lawyer making his first run for office, beat Del. Chris Hurst, D-Christiansburg, a former television news anchor who for four years was the only Democrat in the House south of Roanoke. Tara Durant, an elementary school teacher, won the Fredericksburg-anchored seat represented by Democratic Del. Josh Cole, who was among the more progressive members of the House. And in Virginia Beach, Tim Anderson, an activist GOP lawyer, beat freshman Democrat Nancy Guy, herself a retired lawyer.

Victoria Chang-Holt casts her ballot in Chesterfield County, Va., November 2, 2021. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

One of the more surprising upsets of the night came in Hampton Roads, where Del. Martha Mugler, D-Hampton, lost to Republican A.C. Cordoza in a district where Republicans spent just $50,000 to the $600,000 raised by Democrats.

In addition to reclaiming lost ground, Republicans also picked up a seat long held by Democrats in Southside Virginia, where Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, lost to pharmacist Otto Wachsmann. Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, also appears to have lost to Republican Kim Taylor and Del. Alex Askew, D-Virginia Beach, appears to have narrowly lost to Republican Karen Greenhalgh.

Turnout was strong around the state, but Republicans professed far more enthusiasm than Democrats as they made their way into the polls.
In Waverly, Tim Johnson, a machinist, and Heather Powell, a waitress, said they were thankful for the GOP’s focus on education and barring “inappropriate materials” from schools, which they said had inspired them to review the library books their high-school aged daughter had checked out. They said they were dismayed to find profanity and graphic material.

“I had no idea to look,” Powell said.

Johnson called the issue their “biggest concern.”

Some Democrats, meanwhile, said they struggled to muster the enthusiasm to vote. Veronica Cochran, who works from home as a customer support agent, said she was disappointed Biden hadn’t accomplished more and was mostly unfamiliar with the party’s legislative achievements at the state level over the past two years.

“Us Democrats got to tighten up,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re fighting for.”

States Newsroom D.C. Bureau reporter Ariana Figueroa and Mercury columnist Bob Lewis contributed reporting.

This breaking news post has been updated to reflect new election returns. 

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.