Glenn Youngkin’s Victory Is a Warning for Democrats

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The Republican Glenn Youngkin, a fifty-four-year-old first-time candidate and the former C.E.O. of the Carlyle Group, was elected governor of Virginia on Tuesday night by a small but clear margin, flipping political control of a state that Joe Biden had won by ten points just twelve months ago. Youngkin’s opponent was Terry McAuliffe, a centrist Democrat with deep ties to the national Party establishment, who was Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018, and who had initially been favored. But Youngkin mobilized Republican voters against progressive control of education in much of the state: against the hesitancy of many schools to reopen quickly after COVID, against what they saw as the intrusion of critical race theory into curricula, against the affirmation of fluid gender identity and norms among public-school students. At rallies to support McAuliffe, Biden and Barack Obama described Youngkin as rich and out of touch (as they had once described Mitt Romney) and his politics as extreme (the way they had once described Donald Trump). Neither line worked. By the end of the race, it was the Democrats who were insisting that Trump’s ideas were on the ballot and the Republicans who were pretending that they hardly mattered.

Trump’s absence—or at least his intermittent, bleating semi-presence, like a radio that has been stuffed in a closet without being turned off—made this race different from those of the past four years. As Youngkin crept up in the polls, Republican operatives were positively giddy, not only because they suddenly seemed to have a good shot at winning political control of a reliably blue state (four of Virginia’s last five governors have been Democrats) but also because a more moderate Republican had managed to generate political heat in the most conservative parts of Virginia. “Seems like he outperformed Trump by a lot with non-college-educated white voters,” the election analyst Ryan Matsumoto noted. In the devil’s bargain that the Party establishment cut with Trump, it accepted his illiberalism and tolerated his cruelties in return for the votes he won the Party. But what if the establishment no longer needs him for the votes? “I’ll just say it: Glenn Youngkin should seriously consider running for president in 2024,” the anti-Trump conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted, maybe a little breathlessly, on Tuesday evening. “Hard to beat Trump, but easier if you own the libs on the scale we seem to be seeing tonight.”

Had Virginia’s been the only major election held last night, that might have been the story: a turn in the Republican Party, back toward its traditional self. But a second gubernatorial contest, in New Jersey, followed a similar pattern, suggesting deeper problems for the Democrats. The incumbent Democrat, Phil Murphy, won the 2017 election by fourteen percentage points—slightly less than the margin by which Biden defeated Trump in New Jersey in 2020. Murphy was expected to handily defeat his opponent, a former legislator from Raritan named Jack Ciattarelli, who campaigned largely by challenging Murphy’s response to the pandemic, but on Wednesday morning the race remained too close to call. This had nothing to do with Youngkin, and little to do with the culture-war issues that had surfaced in the Virginia race.

It is beginning to seem that Biden’s Presidency is in trouble. In the course of the summer, his public approval collapsed: in June, a little more than fifty per cent of voters approved of the job he was doing and a little more than forty per cent disapproved, but those numbers have now reversed. “Biden has nearly the worst approval ratings of any president on record at this stage of his presidency,” the Times election guru Nate Cohn tweeted late last night. “Just something to keep in mind if you’re struggling to understand what happened tonight.” Exactly why what seemed a popular Presidency has lost so much support has been hard to pinpoint, even for professionals. There are mundane factors (gas prices spiked this summer) and ideological ones (the Republicans have been raising a ruckus over progressive positions on schools, crime, and homelessness). But the scale of the votes last night hinted at a simpler dynamic, in which Democrats control most political institutions but have been unable to effectively direct them. The President’s entire domestic agenda has seemed more or less stuck on Joe Manchin’s houseboat; his Independence Day declaration of freedom from the coronavirus pandemic immediately proved premature. As the high turnout numbers in red districts demonstrated, Republicans were motivated to vote against Democratic control. But what exactly were Democrats meant to vote for?

Biden’s coalition suddenly seems fragile. Without the soldering presence of the fear of Trump, it is vulnerable to being pulled apart, with college-educated Democrats on one side and working class ones on the other, or progressives on one side and moderate suburbanites on the other. In retrospect, the panics that dominated Fox News this summer—over critical race theory, the crisis at the border, and crime in the cities—look almost algorithmic, a conservative movement testing the familiar wedge issues to see what worked. During the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries, there was a lot of hopeful talk that the long post-Reagan conservative regime had reached its breaking point, that younger voters were spurring a transition to a new, more progressive era. Tuesday’s elections were off-year contests in just two states. But they supplied a point of skepticism. That generational change may be less powerful, at least for now, than the pattern of education polarization, in which voters with a college education are trending toward the Democrats and those without one toward the Republicans. Take away Trump, even for a moment, and maybe American politics have not changed so much at all.


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