The Virginia governor’s race has always been treated as a referendum on the White House incumbent. The result this time — with Democrat Terry McAuliffe losing to his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, a year after Biden swept the state by 10 percentage points — amounts to a referendum squared. US politics is considerably more nationalised than it has ever been, which makes this a terrible result for the president. The message to him from Virginia is to turn things around before it is too late.
Youngkin’s victory will serve as the template for the Republican campaign to retake Congress a year from now. It boiled down to two things. First, keep the Trumpian base onside by giving them just enough red meat. Youngkin’s attack on the alleged teaching of “critical race theory” in Virginia’s schools and his critique of mask mandates was sufficiently Trumpian to raise turnout in rural and small town Virginia. Youngkin showed great skill in securing Donald Trump’s endorsement while ensuring the former president stayed far away from the state.
That made his second plank — targeting the more pragmatic suburban vote that had swung to Biden in 2020 — easier to pull off. If central casting were to confect a hologram of a moderate suburban Dad, Youngkin would fit the bill. His relatively moderate demeanour gave him scope to reassure white-collar voters that he was not whistling nativist tunes while doing precisely that. This enabled him to say things that would have sounded dangerously polarising coming from another politician, like Trump. When Youngkin echoed blatantly false conspiracy theories that the FBI were infiltrating school board meetings to harass conservatives, he sounded concerned rather than incendiary. Had Trump said that same thing it would have set off alarm bells.
All of which offers a sobering portent for Biden and the Democratic party. To be sure, other issues, including rising inflation, Democratic disarray on Capitol Hill, and the impression of incompetence in America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, fed into the mood that Biden’s presidency is in trouble. His national approval ratings, which have dropped into negative territory since August, bear that out. This alone may have been enough for McAuliffe to lose the Virginia election. But cultural issues played a huge role too.
Virginia itself is not suffering from rising crime, shares no border with Mexico and is not teaching critical race theory in its schools. Nor have there been any local attempts to defund the police. But in a highly polarised media environment, such fears can easily be stoked. McAuliffe’s campaign boiled down to his claims that Youngkin was a proxy for Trump; and critical race theory was a figment of people’s imagination. Both failed abysmally. The cultural point may have been technically correct. But pedantry is not a strategy.
The lesson for Democrats is that they must overcome two disadvantages. First, contrary to conservative folklore, the mainstream media does not work for the Democrats. Cable news is just as happy to pillory a Democratic president as a Republican one. Biden has given the media more than enough material recently. He ran last year on the quality of competence but displayed precious little of that in the Afghanistan pullout and his management of intra-Democratic warfare on Capitol Hill. The fact that Congress has yet to pass either of Biden’s signature bills was surely unhelpful to McAuliffe’s turnout. By contrast, the conservative media are consistently disciplined in their support for Republican candidates. They are not weighed down by the mission of objective reporting.
Second, Democrats cannot rely on fear of Trump to bring out their vote, as they did in 2020. Youngkin’s message was Trumpian without featuring Trump. It turns out that claiming Trump is behind the curtains does not scare enough voters to go the polls. Democrats did their best to goad Trump to appear on the hustings in Virginia. Youngkin wisely kept him at bay.
It turns out that in practice, Democrats are bad at fighting culture wars when Trump is not on the ballot. We will see how well Youngkin’s strategy works in next year’s midterm elections. If Republicans can repeat it successfully, as now seems likely, they will suddenly be the ones with the problem: how can they stop Trump from running in 2024?