CNN dubbed Tuesday’s electoral results a “nightmare” for Democrats. The network’s political commentator Van Jones deemed them a “five-alarm fire.” In a race no one expected to be close, New Jersey’s incumbent Democratic governor Phil Murphy won re-election by less than two percent of the vote. In a race everyone expected to be close, Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, himself a former Virginia governor, lost to multimillionaire political neophyte Glenn Youngkin by over two points. Republicans won all three of Virginia’s state-wide races—governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—taking each office from Democrats. Virginia Republicans also took back the state House of Delegates after Democrats had surged to a ten-seat majority only two years ago. Progressive white urbanites’ favorite post-George Floyd policy proposal, defunding the police, went down to crushing defeat in both Minneapolis (by referendum) and Seattle (by mayoral election), two of the whitest and most progressive cities in America.
CNN’s Jones framed the Democrats’ despair. The “five-alarm fire” broke out Tuesday night because “our voters” who had lined up in the Democratic column in 2018 and stayed through 2019 and 2020 had now “abandoned us in droves” in 2021. This is a provocative contextualization of the party’s present anxiety.
It is true that in 2018 Democrats took the U.S. House thanks to locking down America’s wealthiest districts. The same phenomenon carried Democrats to victories in Virginia, Kentucky, and the Philadelphia suburbs in 2019. In 2020 it wasn’t black and brown voters, but rich white ones, that carried Joe Biden to the presidency, held the House, and turned the Senate blue. This week’s hand-wringing over the Virginia results in particular is born of fears that these newly-won rich, white, anti-Trump professional-managerial-class voters have defected. Their numerical growth, part and parcel of the expansion of the Washington, D.C., megalopolis in northern Virginia, caused the state’s historic transformation from solid red in the 1980s to purple in the 1990s and 2000s to deep blue in 2020.
But these fears are misplaced. The wealthy suburbanites that carried the Democrats to power haven’t “fired the help.” They remain the party’s base.
Case in point: Loudoun County, Virginia. Not only is Loudoun County the state’s richest. It has also been ground zero for public battles over critical race theory, transgenderism, and parental rights in education. Videos of police arresting parents demonstrating at school board meetings and the infamous National School Boards Association’s letter asking that such parents be considered domestic terrorists all come out of the events in Loudoun County. Journalist and activist Christopher Rufo has already proclaimed parental revolt against wokeness to be “the meaning of Virginia.” He is not alone in claiming Terry McAuliffe’s defeat as their culture war victory. Indeed, it is hard to ignore that almost 25,000 more Loudoun County votes were cast for Glenn Youngkin than for the Republicans’ Bush/Romney functionary candidate Ed Gillespie in 2017.
That being said, despite all the culture war tumult, Loudoun County voters still voted for Terry McAuliffe. Loudoun County stayed blue; the 2021 figure of 55 percent was not far from the 59 percent of voters who supported radical pro-abortion Democrat Ralph Northam in 2017. In fact, some 18,000 more Loudoun County voters turned out for McAuliffe on Tuesday than did for Northam four years ago.
The results from Loudoun County were repeated across the wealthy professional-managerial-class heartland of northern Virginia. All the suburban D.C. counties and cities that were blue in the mid- or late-2010s stayed blue on Tuesday. As in Loudoun County, places like Arlington and Fairfax and Falls Church showed mild declines of one to four percent in their share of the vote going to the Democrat compared to 2017, but all remained indisputably blue. The Democratic vote in the state’s nine majority-black counties and cities in southern Virginia actually fell three to five percent, more than in the wealthy professional-managerial-class areas of northern Virginia, although mostly due to black voters composing a smaller percent of the overall vote. In the end the geography of McAuliffe’s defeat was quite even across the state. Just about every part of Virginia liked him a little less than it liked Northam in 2017. The result was Youngkin’s two percent victory margin statewide.
Further insight can be gleaned from the Virginia House of Delegates races. Republicans’ hold on the state’s lower house collapsed from 66 seats after the 2015 election to just 45 in the 2019 election. The party now seems on track to flip six seats and retake control. Of those six, only one (District 28) is a wealthy professional-managerial-class district in northern Virginia. The other five are in Greater Richmond (Districts 63 & 75), Hampton Roads (Districts 83 & 91), and Southwest Virginia (District 12). These results show that Republicans need not curry favor in the wealthiest suburbs with a pre-2016 message of tax cuts, corporate freedom, and open borders in order to win. All those positions have been taken up by Democrats anyway, where they should remain.
We all could use a dose of humility when reading the tea leaves of a close election in what is actually a rather purple state. That being said, the Right can justly take solace in Virginia’s quite broad-based turn against Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin won thanks to a big increase in Republican votes across the entire state. While the Democrat’s tally grew around 175,000 compared to 2017, Republican numbers shot up nearly 500,000. And although Youngkin’s demographic profile is, to be frank, straight out of the Republican party’s 2012 playbook, he hasn’t been called “Trump Lite” for nothing. But more importantly it was McAuliffe, not Youngkin, who tried to put the former president at the center of a Virginia gubernatorial race. That effort clearly flopped.
The Right can also be glad for the chastisement of a Democratic party that has become increasingly racialist. On the campaign trail, Terry McAuliffe insisted that the very mention of critical race theory was nothing more than a “racist dog whistle,” even as he proclaimed that Virginia schools had a white teacher surplus problem. Glenn Youngkin instead ended his stump speech in the campaign’s waning days with the words of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. A former Carlyle Group CEO is hardly an ideal representative of post-Reaganism Republican ideals. But only an ingrate would stare a gift horse in the mouth.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College.
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