Virginia and New Jersey Governor: A Big Night for Republicans

by Nathan L. Gonzales November 3, 2021 · 12:35 AM EDT

Even though the Virginia gubernatorial race is just one race in one state (OK, commonwealth), Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory will reverberate around the country and set the early stage for the 2022 midterm elections.

Considering the next big Election Day is a year away, there will be plenty of time to digest the results from Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, here are a few initial takeaways.

The Democratic majorities were at risk before the Virginia result and they’re at risk after Virginia. This would have been a main point even if Democrat Terry McAuliffe had pulled out a narrow win. Democrats have narrow majorities in the House and the Senate and midterm elections are typically poor for the president’s party. That strong historical trend, combined with President Joe Biden’s slumping job rating is a recipe for a good (or great) GOP year in 2022, no matter what happened this week. 

Even a narrow Youngkin loss would have been good news for the GOP. The fact that Youngkin was competitive in a state Biden won handily in 2020 was positive for the GOP. Republicans don’t need to win states or districts that Biden carried by 10 points (as he did Virginia) in order to regain majorities in the Senate and the House. The fact that Youngkin won with a bit to spare is the icing on the cake for the GOP and will just embolden Republicans.

Listen to the politicians. No matter what any political analyst or journalist says happened in the election, what matters more is what the politicians and party strategists think happened in the election. Because what the politicians think happened will drive their future behavior. It will be at least a few days before we know whether progressives see Tuesday’s results as a repudiation. It’s also unclear how Republicans view Trump’s role in their recent success, considering Youngkin effectively kept the former president at arm’s length in the final months of the campaign. But we will be hearing a lot more about critical race theory from the GOP side over the next year.

Candidates and campaigns matter. Youngkin’s personal wealth allowed him to spend to parity with McAuliffe. Previous, unsuccessful GOP candidates were often outspent. Youngkin also effectively defined himself with TV ads during the summer, particularly with independent voters, making it more difficult for Democrats to demonize him during the home stretch. In the end, Youngkin finished the race with 52 percent favorable/44 percent unfavorable rating, according to the CNN exit poll, compared to McAuliffe’s 45 percent favorable/51 percent unfavorable rating. 

Replicating Youngkin won’t be easy. Youngkin blazed a legitimate path to victory in territory that previously rejected Trump by keeping the former president at arm’s length. While Trump will claim credit for Youngkin’s win, his absence from the state and not requiring Youngkin to kiss the ring allowed the GOP nominee appeal to independent voters necessary to win. That won’t be as easy for some GOP candidates in 2022 who have to navigate competitive primaries, and profess loyalty to Trump, before moving on to the general election. While some GOP candidates appear focused on mirroring Trump’s style, Youngkin’s performance as a pragmatic unifier is an alternate path. 

Partisanship is alive and well. According to the CNN exit poll, 96 percent of GOP voters supported Youngking and 96 percent of Democratic voters supported McAuliffe. That’s similar to last year when 96 percent of Democratic voters in Virginia supported Biden and 90 percent of GOP voters supported Trump. On Tuesday, independent voters went for Youngkin 54-45 percent, which is a big turnaround from Biden’s 57-38 percent victory with independents. 

Virginia was an outlier compared to other 2021 races. While it’s a very small sample size, the results in Virginia were significantly different from other races this year that pitted Republicans against Democrats. There was the potential for Republicans to win the special election in New Mexico’s 1st District or recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California. But in the end, both areas performed about as expected while Youngkin dramatically overperformed. So what changed? Biden’s job rating is significantly worse now compared to the beginning of June or even mid-September when those races took place.

Republicans could smell an opportunity in New Jersey. The Republican Governors Association spent $4 million late in the race in the face of data that showed Biden slipping significantly with independents. Private GOP polling in the final couple weeks showed Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy leading Republican Jack Ciattarelli by 4 points and 6 points in two separate surveys. But GOP strategists didn’t run around making their polling public for fear of alerting Democrats to their vulnerability.

Dare I say, Tuesday was a win for polling? Youngkin led by about 1 point (47.9 percent to 47 percent) in the final FiveThirtyEight polling average and by about 2 points (48.5 percent to 46.8 percent) in the final RealClearPolitics average. Private polling showed a close race as well. Youngkin is on pace to win by about 3 points. That’s pretty darn good in the face of all the criticism. And it’s more evidence to my working hypothesis that polling is more difficult when Donald Trump’s name is on the ballot.

Suburbs still matter. Even after multiple cycles of movement toward Democrats, it’s clear the suburbs aren’t firmly in their column. At a surface level, when suburban voters are focused on Trump, they vote Democratic. When they’re focused on Democrats in leadership and potential Democratic overreach, it’s more of a mixed result. That’s why the framing of the election and capturing voters’ focus is critical in any race. Biden and congressional Democrats are reminding suburban voters why they voted Republican before Trump came along.

The midterm elections are a year away. This might be the only sliver of good news for Democrats. It’s fair if Democrats want to blame Biden’s poor job rating for Democrats’ implosion in Virginia. But there’s no guarantee he’ll be in significantly better shape next year. There is the potential that voters think differently about federal races compared to state offices, as Stuart Rothenberg pointed out in his recent Roll Call column. But Tuesday’s results showed Democrats have a lot of work to do.