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Republican Glenn Youngkin Won Virginia's Governor Race In An Early Warning Sign For Democrats

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe's loss in a state Joe Biden won big in 2020 shows how tricky the midterms could be for Democrats.

Last updated on November 3, 2021, at 10:03 a.m. ET

Posted on November 2, 2021, at 8:58 p.m. ET

Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Glenn Youngkin speaks at a campaign rally at the Loudoun County Fairground.

Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia gubernatorial race, deepening a panic among Democrats about their ability to hold control of Washington in next year’s midterms.

Youngkin, a first-time candidate, walloped McAuliffe in a state where Biden beat Trump by 10 points last year. The Virginia race, one of two off-year gubernatorial contests, is seen as a bellwether for the upcoming midterm elections. Virginia has been trending toward Democrats, and the last time a Republican won a statewide office was in 2009; it is still a competitive state that politicians and operatives have been looking to for a read on voters

“Together we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth,” Governor-elect Youngkin told a crowd of voters in an election night victory speech that focused heavily on schools. “We’re going to embrace our parents not ignore them. We’re going to press forward with a curriculum that includes listening to parents.”

McAuliffe conceded his defeat in a press release Wednesday morning, after delaying Tuesday night. "Congratulations to Governor-Elect Glenn Youngkin on his victory," he said. "I hope Virginians will join me in wishing the best to him and his family."

Youngkin ran a campaign that balanced keeping Trump close enough to excite his supporters while appealing to voters who might vote Republican if not for the former president. Despite not appearing at any event with Trump, he made a point of speaking to issues that the former president popularized, from election security to critical race theory. His success while navigating Trump could serve as a model for Republican candidates in districts and states where Trump remains deeply unpopular.

In addition to calling into the state to stump on behalf of Youngkin on the eve of the election, Trump said in a statement Monday that the candidate has had his “Complete and Total Endorsement for many months!” Immediately after the race was called, he put out a statement taking credit for Youngkin's win, and congratulating him.

Though it was a statewide race, plenty of national influence poured in on both sides. McAuliffe had high-profile Democrats visit the state, from Biden to Barack Obama to Stacey Abrams, to get out the vote. His strategy relied heavily on tying Youngkin to Trump, and some Democratic voters in Virginia certainly saw this election as an ongoing referendum on the former president.

McAuliffe’s strategy also relied on keeping his own party’s president at an arm’s length, as Biden’s agenda has stalled in Washington due to two senators — Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — holding up the passage of twin bills intended to address infrastructure and social spending. As Washington remained in a stalemate leading up to Election Day, Biden’s own popularity has sagged. Aware of the narrative that would emerge for the White House if the Democratic candidate lost, a Biden adviser downplayed the possibility of a McAuliffe win on Monday, pointing again to “historical headwinds” the Democratic candidate was facing. They resisted speculating on the meaning of Tuesday’s election for the midterms and beyond.

“You can’t take one race and extrapolate that to, like, what’s going to happen a year from now. There’s a lot that could change. There’s a lot that’s going to happen,” the Biden adviser said, adding that if the president's legislative agenda passes, that could change the dynamics for Democrats for future races.

“I don’t know that we can singularly say one way or the other, 'Virginia went this way, this is how 2022 is going to go,'” the Biden adviser said.

Biden spoke at a campaign rally for McAuliffe last week, the first direct appearance the president had made on the candidate’s behalf since the beginning of the race. The bulk of his remarks there focused on McAuliffe’s record and Youngkin’s ties to Trump, only briefly mentioning his own legislative agenda. McAuliffe, early last month, acknowledged that his campaign faced “headwinds from Washington.”

“You saw some of the suburbs move back to what they were pre-Trump, and you saw that Republicans were more energized than Democrats,” said Jared Leopold, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “It’s certainly reflective of where we are right now, but I think there’s time to turn it around before the midterms.”

McAuliffe had always faced a challenging election, given that he was up against the Virginia “curse.” In the last four decades, only one candidate whose party held the White House has been able to win the governor’s mansion in Virginia the following year. The exception to that trend was McAuliffe himself in 2013 — but that was hardly a reassurance for Democrats.

Republicans, for the Virginia election, turned to a massive effort to recruit poll watchers that would encourage election integrity and ensure their base participates in Tuesday’s election as Trump continues to sow doubt around the 2020 election results.

The commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections confirmed to BuzzFeed News that there was “an uptick in interest for voters to serve as election officers at polling locations.” The Fairfax County Republican Committee chair, Steve Knotts, told BuzzFeed News his unit had trained upward of 300 people to serve as poll watchers and greeters. MAGA surrogates have also amplified the recruitment drive.

“What we're trying to do in Virginia is ensure a fair and honest election, and also it's critical that people — that our side, the Trump supporters, that Republicans have confidence again in the electoral system,” John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who has used his show to promote the recruitment drive in Virginia, told BuzzFeed News.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.