Virginia Votes For Its Governor, Chooses a Milder Face Of Trumpism

Photograph Source: Kellis7 – CC BY-SA 4.0

Historically, the odds in this Virginia gubernatorial election were stacked against the Democratic candidate. Since Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, Virginia has almost always followed a president’s election by electing a governor of the opposing party a year later.

With Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win, this pattern has held in 11 of Virginia’s past 12 elections for governor. The exception was McAuliffe’s narrow win in 2013, a year after Barack Obama was re-elected as president. This time, McAuliffe was unable to overturn this pattern for a second time.

Youngkin is the first Republican to win statewide in Virginia since 2009. He prevailed by running what amounted to a “smoke and mirrors” campaign, aided by the fact that not having been in any kind of political office before, McAuliffe could not focus his campaign on Youngkin’s political history— obviously, the novice politician had none.

At the same time, McAuliffe, having been governor before, had a record that could be picked over by his Republican opponent, however selectively. Youngkin’s team did this relentlessly, and although he is just as much a corporate shill as McAuliffe (his career in corporate America was never scrutinized), Youngkin was able to present himself as a “pro investment” tabula rasa.

McAuliffe was happy to campaign on his record as governor, highlighting the investments in education made by him. He pledged to expand access to early childhood education and to uphold existing abortion policies. He touted what he termed a record of progress as governor, underlining his efforts to shift Virginia’s economy away from dependence on federal defense spending toward technology-driven industries requiring a highly educated workforce. He paraded his doing the groundwork for Amazon’s selection of Arlington County for its East Coast headquarters (his refusal to back an Amazon union may have been a part of this groundwork).

At the same time campaign on his record created an immediate drawback for him. He seemed to be immersed in the past, allowing Youngkin to frame the arguments with a more current import his way.

Youngkin’s big challenge was to position himself vis-a-vis Donald Trump, who lost in Virginia by 5 points in 2016 and by 10 points in 2020. Youngkin needed the votes of Trump’s base, without seeming to underwrite in full the agenda of the divisive figurehead of the Republican party.

Youngkin’s handling of this issue was masterly. He never once mentioned the name “Trump” when campaigning. In a tippy-toes shuffle around this potential problem, he declined any personal appearances with Trump, while appealing to Trump’s base on issues like so-called “critical race theory”, and pushing Trump’s line that the electoral system was vulnerable to illegal fixing. He went (just, ever so just) so far as saying he would support Trump if he was the Republican presidential nominee in 2024.

But putting in an appearance with Trump: “No Sir!”

Youngkin, while repudiating none of Trump’s talking-points, nonetheless comported himself more like Mitt Romney, a stalwart member of his country club’s organizing committee, as opposed to the snarling vulgarian now domiciled in Mar-a-Lago.

On Trump, Youngkin therefore ate the proverbial cake while keeping it. Youngkin found a way to transmute the “Trump effect” to his electoral advantage. That is, don’t mention his name, never have him at your rallies, but press on with Trump’s “hot button” issues. Trump’s base, appropriately primed, will still get the message.

Is this “strategic ambiguity” (a term used by some political commentators) a template for Republican politicians seeking to keep Trump’s base on their side, but without embracing him so tightly that so-called independent and “moderate” voters from the suburbs, would be able to prefer a chameleon-like Youngkin to an out-and-out- Democratic hack?

McAuliffe had of course devoted time and resources to lumping Youngkin with Trump. He said Youngkin would bring Trump’s “extremism” and “bigotry” to Virginia (those of us who live in the Appalachian part of the state know full-well approximations of these have been here for a long time!), and that Youngkin would annul efforts by Democrats to make Virginia more inclusive of minorities, whether racial, ethnic, LBGTQ, and so on.

McAuliffe also said Youngkin’s evasive statements on abortion could herald a reduction in the ability of women to opt for abortions, in effect turning Virginia into “Texas”. Youngkin countered by saying McAuliffe wanted to turn Virginia into “California”.

McAuliffe’s emphasis on investment in education was however undercut by Youngkin’s disingenuous emphasis on hot-button education issues, such as the role of parents in their children’s schooling.

McAuliffe made an off-the-cuff remark – “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – that became top of the bill in Youngkin’s attack ads.

Youngkin, desperate to use education as a “wedge” issue, pledged to eliminate “critical race theory” from classrooms (despite the fact it is not taught in Virginia schools), have a police officer stationed at every school, introduce more private options to education by recourse to a voucher system, and letting school districts make their own policies on the inclusion of transgender students.

However, McAuliffe’s pieties about protecting Virginia’s public education system were quickly undermined by Youngkin attack ads pointing out that 4 out of 5 McAuliffe’s children were privately educated, 3 requiring tuition for the 2021-22 school year at $45,650 each, and 1 at $24,950, not including meals or transportation.

Youngkin is a plutocrat, but these attacks made it obvious that McAuliffe is just as much a member of the tribe of extremely well-to-do capitalists. Not that McAuliffe has ever hidden this from view.

In the debates McAuliffe refused to support an Amazon union and said he wouldn’t waste time asking the legislature to repeal Virginia’s right to work law. He is also a supporter of the environmentally-destructive Mountain Valley Pipeline, alienating the left of his party in doing so. Nothing done by McAuliffe (mantra: “trade deals are what matter”) indicated that he had in mind the interests of poorer whites in rural Virginia.

At the same time, Youngkin, with the tacit connivance of the media, never really said much about his own plutocratic background, except to say he was a “businessman”, and so forth. Before he entered politics Youngkin worked for three decades at the Carlyle Group, ending up as its co-CEO. He never named the Group in his campaign pitches, and always referred to himself as someone who worked for an “investment firm”.

Now, the Carlyle Group is no ordinary “investment firm”!

Since 2000 the Carlyle Group has paid $49,418,108 in penalties for 73 corporate violations.

It is surprising that Youngkin’s past as a cowboy private equity “financier” didn’t come up during the campaign. The Democrats remained silent about this; one assumes this was because McAuliffe has been involved in some shady deals in his past.

McAuliffe was not helped by increasingly negative perceptions of Joe Biden, who campaigned with him twice—the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan (but when was the last time the US conducted a major military operation competently?), rising fuel prices, supply chain crises, and above all, Biden’s stalled economic agenda (thanks to Manchin and Sinema)—none of these exhibited to Virginian voters a McAuliffe who had the aura, admittedly indefinable, of a “winner”.

The approval of Biden’s infrastructure bill by the House of Representatives came too late to rescue McAuliffe.

By contrast, the novice Youngkin campaigned on his own. He could not campaign alongside Trump or any of his surrogates, nor mainstream Republicans disapproved of by Trump, and, obviously the self-praising “successful businessman” did not have any of the Carlyle Group’s luminaries appear next to him to say how brilliant he was at job creation (in a system which punished white-collar crime appropriately they and Youngkin would probably be in jail).

Youngkin just did not seem to carry any baggage with him.

Predictably, Trump was quick to claim credit for Youngkin’s victory. “It is looking like Terry McAuliffe’s campaign against a certain person named ‘Trump’ has very much helped Glenn Youngkin,” Trump emailed. “I didn’t even have to go rally for Youngkin, because McAuliffe did it for me. Thank you to the MAGA voters for turning out big!”.

It will be curious to see how the chameleon-like Youngkin shapes up as governor, whether he will be an Abbott or DeSantis, or the moderate Larry Hogan of Maryland. Hogan has of course provoked the ire of Trump supporters by criticizing Trump frequently, particularly his response to the Covid pandemic and in the wake of the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection.

My expectation is that the shape-shifter will continue to be a shape-shifter– Abbott and DeSantis on this, and Hogan on that. Since Virginia governors can’t serve consecutive terms, Youngkin won’t pay a political price in so doing. Perhaps only if he follows McAuliffe’s unsuccessful example by running again after standing down for one term?

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.