Tuesday’s General Assembly election saw Gov. Glenn Youngkin invest an unprecedented amount of political fundraising muscle and — more importantly — his own time and energy, in an effort to secure Republican majorities.
And the narrow Democratic majorities for the state Senate and House of Delegates that resulted are set to shake up Virginia politics — and possibly national politics, too — for some time to come.
This isn’t just a question of the way big GOP donors and influencers, including media magnate Rupert Murdoch and billionaire Thomas Peterffy, wooed Youngkin for a potential White House run.
“The luster of his political star has been tarnished tremendously … up to now he’s been the darling of the donor class,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst and a former dean at Virginia Commonwealth University. “He was seen as successful in turning a blue state around, but that wasn’t the case this time.”
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Tuesday’s results might also send signals about what’s on suburban voters’ minds. Political scientists say two things that might not have been were Youngkin’s argument that Virginians, like most Americans, want a middle ground on abortion, and that parents are feeling too shut out of school decisions about what’s taught and what’s handed out for reading.
“His political stature nationally is diminished, as he could not deliver GOP majorities in his own state,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
“He had a chance to go presidential, but he decided instead to focus on the Virginia elections this year. I do not expect to hear much talk anymore about a Youngkin late entrance in the GOP primaries.”
Youngkin says his view about a presidential bid hasn’t changed.
“I have answered this question the same way for a long time, which is I am focused on Virginia,” he told reporters Wednesday outside the state Capitol.
“I have been in Virginia. My name is not on the ballot in New Hampshire. I have not been in Iowa. I’m not in South Carolina. I am in Virginia, and I look forward to staying focused on Virginia just like I have,” he said.
As for Tuesday’s results: “I’m a little disappointed, to be clear,” Youngkin said. “But we step back and we realize that, boy, this was a razor thin set of decisions.
“And I think it underpins the fact that Virginia is clearly a state than has historically moved back and forth for control of one party in the legislature to control of the other in the governor’s office, with very, very thin margins.”
Coming up short
Olusoji Akomolafe, chairman of Norfolk State University’s political science department, was also struck by the tightness of the contest, despite Youngkin’s high-profile campaigning.
“To count him out at this point may be unwise. I will go out on limb to say that while in the short run, he may have lost, in my opinion, he lives to fight another day,” Akomolafe said.
Still, it was an extraordinarily bold commitment of political capital, which still did not pay off.
The governor’s Spirit of Virginia political action committee raised $28.3 million through Friday and through October it had given $15.1 million to Republican candidates and GOP groups backing the party’s candidates.
“There was a tsunami in Henrico; he put a lot of effort, a lot of money, personal appearances for Siobhan Dunnavant, and she lost by nearly 10 points,” Holsworth said of the two-term state senator who lost to Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.
Youngkin argued for tighter restrictions on abortion — to bar most procedures at 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the pregnant person — on the grounds that in 2021 Virginians elected in him a “pro-life governor.”
Democrats’ challenges that this meant an unwarranted government intrusion on private health care decisions was decisive in suburban Virginia, political scientists said.
“The election was about abortion rights — period,” Rozell said. Voters doubted Republican majorities would really stop at 15 weeks, he said.
“When you have people say they’re 100% pro-life and then support a 15-week ban, that makes people wonder what you really want … with Youngkin and the Republicans, people were skeptical about what they really wanted,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
Akomolafe said the vote overturns one longstanding political notion.
“For the first time, we are now realizing that some issues are capable of defeating dollars,” he said. “Youngkin is a relatively popular, middle-of-the-road politician, who probably could have succeeded in flipping the Senate, had it not been for the abortion issue,” he said.
Youngkin said he still believes there’s a middle ground on abortion that moves away from Virginia’s current law, which allows abortions through the second trimester, or 26 weeks, and says the rare third trimester operation can be performed if two doctors agree with the pregnant woman’s physician that it is needed.
“The one thing that we know is that abortion is a really difficult topic, that there is a place to come together around a reasonable limit,” Youngkin said Wednesday.
“And I think Virginians can come there. And that’s something that I continue to be committed to work on with our legislature in order to see if we can find it,” he said.
Youngkin, like most GOP legislative candidates, had said he was hearing on the campaign trail that voters were not much interested in abortion or concerned about his 15-week proposal.
But he apparently decided to tackle Democratic messaging that he was really after a more restrictive ban when internal polling suggested he ought to, said John McGlennon, a College of William and Mary government professor who recently was re-elected as a Democratic member of the James City County board of supervisors.
That polling-inspired effort, through a high profile ad campaign, just ended up confirming abortion as the central issue, McGlennon said.
Polling hints may also be why the parents’ rights issue, which national GOP donors have seen as a potential vote-getter across the nation, fell by the wayside in the 2023 Virginia election, McGlennon said.
School board elections seem to confirm that voters balked as some parents’ rights advocates pushed for book bans, he said.
“I think that issue in 2021 just captured parents’ frustration with 18 months of remote learning,” rather than tapping into any concerns about critical race theory or books in school reading lists, Holsworth said.
Inflation and the economy also didn’t seem to swing too many suburban voters, he said.
Like abortion and parents’ right issues that played poorly in Virginia suburbs, tax relief seemed to spark only muted enthusiasm in even the wealthier stretches of Northern Virginia and western Henrico, he said.
“He won in 2021 by ramping up the rural, Republican vote,” Holsworth said. “But running against Terry McAuliffe in Loudoun, he got a smaller share of the vote than [conservative Attorney General} Ken Cuccinelli did running against McAuliffe” for governor in 2013, he said.
In that race two years ago, in the wealthy Northern Virginia county that spurred the parents’ rights push, Youngkin received 44.2% of the vote to McAuliffe’s 49.7%; in 2013, Cuccinelli got 45.4% of votes cast to McAuliffe’s 49.6%.
And this year Loudoun voted decisively for Democratic candidates for the state Senate and House.
“Voters were really engaged. … We saw some big turnout in competitive races, and I think some of that was just fatigue with all the rhetoric,” McGlennon said.
Richmond’s big turnout to reject for the second time a high-pressure, big-spending campaign urging voters to approve a casino, which saw voters’ mailboxes flooded with a stream of pro-casino flyers, was an example of that, he said.
“I think all the chaos, all the antics in the House of Representatives, all the chaos from Trump, may have been a factor, too,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in an interview.
“Virginians want pragmatic politics,” he said. “You saw that with Russet Perry’s win” over Republican Juan Pablo Segura in a state Senate district anchored in Loudoun County, Warner said.
Voters’ desires for a focus on issues of daily life — like traffic on Northern Virginia’s Rote 28 — helped Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, fend off a heavily financed GOP effort to defeat her in her bid for a state Senate seat,” Warner said.
“When I called her last night to congratulate her, she said we’ve got phase one of Route 28, now what can you do about phase two?” Warner said Wednesday, referring to a Northern Virginia artery that goes through Prince William County.
“The old political saw about how all politics is local really resonated in this election,” Farnsworth said.
The degree of Youngkin’s interest in pragmatic efforts, as well as whatever interest he has in national affairs will set the tone for the final two years of the single term the state Constitution allows a governor, political analysts said.
“Virginia governors for the last 20 years have had to work with divided government; Mark Warner did it, Bob McDonnell, with transportation,” Holsworth said.
“He’ll have to reach out to Democrats, but he’s not going to be able to do that and then go on Fox news in the evening to claim credit for everything, or say Democrats are standing in the way,” he said.
But there are areas where Youngkin and the General Assembly could work together on the kind of legacy-style initiatives that governors typically seek, McGlennon said.
Those likely won’t include big efforts to cut taxes or government, but could include economic development efforts, public school funding and moves to transform Virginia’s overwhelmed mental health system, he said.
“Whether we’ll see that, or lots of vetoes, depends on what his political aspirations are,” McGlennon said.
And though Youngkin often highlights initiatives that won Democratic support, including the $5 billion of tax relief lawmakers approved in the 2022 and 2023 sessions and increased funding for behavioral health and public schools, it’s not clear that Democrats share that feeling that all sides are working together
“If that’s what he wanted, he should have started two years ago,” Farnsworth said. “But he’s governed in a highly partisan way and he could find Democrats aren’t feeling all that cooperative.”
While Youngkin’s next step could be the one a number of recent one-term governors have opted for — George Allen, Warner and Tim Kaine won U.S. Senate campaigns after their terms — the 2023 election signals that could be a stretch, Holsworth said.
“He’d be a likely possibility for the Republicans, but whether he could win is another question,” Holsworth said.
And that could come down to a question that goes far beyond Virginia.
“When it comes to the Senate these days, I don’t think people think so much about the candidate but whether they’d support Mitch McConnell or Chuck Schumer,” said McGlennon, referring to the Republican and Democratic U.S. Senate leaders.
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