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Republican win in Virginia 'shows potency of the culture wars' in US politics

It was expected to be a comfortable Democratic win but became a toss-up in the closing days of the campaign.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is show on the monitor as the gubernatorial winner at the Westfields Marriott Hotel in Chantilly, VA
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin is show on the monitor as the gubernatorial winner at the Westfields Marriott Hotel in Chantilly, VA
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IN A MAJOR upset to Democrats, Republican Glenn Youngkin has been elected as Virginia’s next governor.

Newcomer Youngkin was 2.7 points ahead of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the neck-and-neck tussle shortly after midnight, with more than 95% of the vote counted, prompting NBC, CNN and ABC to call the election for the Republican.

The race was initially expected to be a comfortable win for Democrats, with Biden winning by 10 points in Virginia in the presidential election just last year. Instead, it became a toss-up in the closing days of the campaign.

A private equity multi-millionaire who has never run for office defeating a former popular Democratic governor will be seen as a disaster for Biden going into the all-important 2022 races that will determine who controls Congress.

Calling his victory a “defining moment,” Youngkin told the crowd: “Together, we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth. And friends, we are going to start that transformation on day one.” 

So, what happened to the Democrats and how did a Republican win?

Leaning into his image as the establishment candidate, the 64-year-old McAuliffe sold himself as a former incumbent who brought back jobs after the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, and pledged to repeat the trick for the pandemic.

Larry Donnelly – a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with The Journal - said the general tenor was that McAuliffe, who was a well-known, popular figure with lots of resources available, would get over the line in this election. 

But what went wrong? 

“I think he ran a poor general election campaign,” Donnelly told The Journal. 

“I also think there’s something to the notion that he might not have been the person for the moment. There were other candidates in the Democratic primary who might have more so been in tune or might have helped to drive African American turnout, turnout from people of colour, which arguably he didn’t as a sort of wealthy insider,” he said. 

u-s-president-joe-biden-and-democratic-candidate-for-governor-of-virginia-terry-mcauliffe-interact-onstage-at-a-rally-in-arlington-virginia-u-s-october-26-2021-reutersjonathan-ernst President Joe Biden and Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia Terry McAuliffe at a rally in Arlington, Virginia last month Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Early in the campaign, Youngkin accepted Trump’s endorsement and steered clear of criticising the twice-impeached former president.

But he also pointedly avoided standing next to the Republican leader, who is seen as beyond the pale among independents in much of Virginia, or presenting himself as a Trump acolyte.

With that, Youngkin had to perform a high-wire act, as the vast majority of Republicans believe Trump’s false claims that the presidency was stolen in a fraudulent election, making acknowledging the truth politically risky.

He turned the conversation instead to local “culture war” issues like abortion, mask mandates and education, galvanising parents who believe they should have more of a say in their children’s education and schools. 

CBS News reports that a pivotal moment came during the final debate when McAuliffe said he doesn’t “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”. Republicans ran with this line. 

Youngkin also pledged to ban critical race theory from Virginia schools. However, it’s not taught in schools in the state.

“[McAuliffe] almost handed the Republican this education issue,” Donnelly said. 

“The education issue and what was happening in public schools, I think, definitely resonated with a lot of voters, including a lot of voters who would have voted for Biden last time around,” he said. 

“So if anything, I think this election shows the potency of the culture wars, and that it really favours the Republicans, and the Democrats better be ready in the midterm elections because they know what’s coming.”

The Guardian’s Washington DC bureau chief today wrote: “McAuliffe’s central argument – that Youngkin is an acolyte of Trump – was about the past. Youngkin’s central argument – that schools are under attack from culture warriors on race and gender – was about the future, even if it was riddled with falsehoods. 

“To many voters, the future tends to be more persuasive.” 

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chantilly-united-states-03rd-nov-2021-virginia-republican-gubernatorial-candidate-glenn-youngkin-enters-the-stage-to-thank-his-supporters-before-giving-his-victory-speech-at-the-westfields-marriot Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin enters the stage to thank his supporters before giving his victory speech at the Westfields Marriott Hotel in Chantilly, VA Source: Alamy Stock Photo

What’s next?

McAuliffe’s loss will also almost certainly spook moderates on Capitol Hill and drive some away from supporting Biden’s stalled $3 trillion vision for remaking the economy.

The long delays on passing promised social welfare and infrastructure packages are an echo of 2009-10, when the Democrats suffered big losses amid gridlock in Washington.

“It has to be read as something of a setback for Biden,” Donnelly said. 

“I mentioned the culture issues, but there’s still some dissatisfaction in the United States with the pullout from Afghanistan, the way it was executed, the blow it dealt to the narrative that he was the steady hand, that he wouldn’t make mistakes like Trump did,” he said. 

Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic group Priorities USA, said it was time for the party to come together, according to CNN

“This election is a warning for all Democrats. While DC Democrats spent weeks fighting each other, Republicans were focused on mobilising their base and peeling away voters from the Biden coalition using deceptive, divisive tactics,” Cecil said. 

“It’s time to focus on what’s next. Congressional Democrats must immediately pass the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills. We must begin tomorrow to consolidate and mobilise those who turned out to vote Democratic in 2020. And we must draw a sharp contrast between Democratic progress and Republican extremism.”

Youngkin’s campaign will now likely become a blueprint for Republicans across the country as they strategize on how to leverage Trump’s base while avoiding becoming tainted by his toxic brand among moderates in the midterms.

With reporting by © – AFP, 2021

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