Glenn Youngkin's Virginia Victory a 'Grim Warning' for Democrats Ahead of Midterms

Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory in Virginia's gubernatorial election could serve as a "grim warning" to Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, experts have told Newsweek, but there is still hope for the party's chances.

Youngkin defeated Democrat and former Governor Terry McAuliffe in the state that President Joe Biden won by 10 points in the 2020 presidential election against former President Donald Trump.

While Trump had endorsed Youngkin, the gubernatorial candidate kept Trump at a distance and the former president did not campaign in person. Democrats, meanwhile, sought to tie Youngkin to Trump—an apparently failed strategy that may hold lessons for the party.

Democrats prevailed in the New Jersey governor's race with Governor Phil Murphy winning a narrow victory despite polls having suggested he could win by a healthy margin.

Murphy becomes the first Democratic governor to win reelection in the state in 44 years following his defeat of Republican Jack Ciattarelli.

However, the close result will likely be cause for concern among Democrats who are hoping to retain control of the House and Senate in 2022.

Grim Warning

Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Newsweek the results in Virginia showed that Republicans were winning the battle on Critical Race Theory (CRT).

"When you put the Virginia and New Jersey results together with the steep decline in Biden's popularity and the normal losses for the president's party in midterm elections, it sends a grim warning to Democrats," Quirk said.

"The Republicans could end up with sizable majorities in both the House and Senate, and even more control of state governments than they have now. Even progressive caucus Democrats in safe seats should find that a scary prospect."

"The main lesson from the Virginia governor's race is that Republicans are winning the Critical Race Theory wars," Quirk added. "The Youngkin campaign focused largely on claims about what the schools are teaching children about American history, the prevalence of racism today, and the moral character of white people.

"The 1619 Project is doing more for Republicans than Fox News," he said.

"Democrats may have just as much trouble separating themselves from 'woke' progressivism as Republicans are having separating themselves from Trump and his stolen-election conspiracy theories," Quirk said.

Trump Clones

While Republicans may be having trouble separating themselves from the former president, their efforts to link Youngkin to Trump don't seem to have succeeded in Virginia.

"Perhaps the biggest lesson for Democrats emerging from the Virginia governor's race is that simply running on an anti-Trump platform - or 'straw-manning' all opponents as Trump clones - won't be enough to win in 2022," said Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London's Center on U.S. Politics.

"Although McAuliffe supporters tried to brand Youngkin as 'Trump in khakis,' Youngkin flipped the conventional wisdom that Republican candidates can only win by coming out clearly as pro- or anti-Trump," Gift told Newsweek.

"By keeping Trump at an arm's length - but not distancing himself too much from the former president - Youngkin provided a roadmap for how GOP politicians can win over moderate voters without unduly alienating the base," he said.

If Republicans duplicate the strategy in swing seats, Democrats "will have to adjust" he added.

David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University, said it has long been apparent Democrats would likely do badly in the upcoming midterms.

"Maybe Democrats convinced themselves otherwise," Bateman said. "Maybe they thought that Trump was so noxious that he changed the rules. But Youngkin managed to find a way to integrate Trump and the Trump style of race-baiting, hate-baiting, and lying while presenting his agenda as focused on state priorities and a positive outlook."

"The basic dynamics of elections apparently haven't changed all that much," he added.

Bateman pointed to the failure to pass the Build Back Better Act, as well as immigration reform, and protection of abortion rights and voting rights as key issues Democrats could address. However, he warned that there were limits to what could be done.

"But at least in passing these priorities, Democrats would have accomplished something," Bateman said. "And the material benefits these provide - and the implicit threat that a Republican victory would pose to them - might help Democrats in 2024 and could, if delivered quickly and visibly enough, help mitigate the likely outcome of 2022 as well."

No Need to Panic

Despite the defeat in Virginia, Democrats shouldn't panic just yet, according to Mark Shanahan, an associate professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Reading University and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage.

"While there's no need to panic yet, there's no way that that this week's gubernatorial election results will have brought any joy or relief to joe Biden," Shanahan told Newsweek.

"Off-year elections tend to go badly for the party in the White House, but there are deeper concerns for Team Biden," he said.

"There are plenty of reasons why McAuliffe lost, but most coalesce around his flippant remark when debating education with his opponent: 'I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.' That galvanised the Republican base and gave them an issue to rally around," Shanahan went on.

"What's more worrying for Biden is that Glenn Youngkin provided a perfect template for how to win back ground for the Republicans - gain a Trump endorsement and then keep the former president far, far away."

Own Worst Enemy

Mark Shanahan told Newsweek the latest election results highlighted how Democrats "have proved to be their own worst enemy."

"The incessant internal party arguments that have led to the failure to pass the Infrastructure or Build Back Better bills have bored America to the back teeth. The wretched withdrawal from Afghanistan has humiliated the country internationally and the rising costs of gas, of food, and of household bills coupled with the seeming failure to get on top of COVID have turned Biden's approval ratings underwater," he said.

"Losing the confidence of voters at this stage in the election cycle is dangerous. The Democrats seem to have lost momentum very quickly, and once the gears seize up, it's really tricky to get started again," Shanahan added.

The Road Ahead

A midterm defeat for the Democrats, however, is not inevitable, Prof. Bateman said; but it won't be easy.

"If Democrats pass their agenda, either the small number of swing voters or the larger number of voters who can be disengaged from politics will have a narrative to justify voting Republican or staying home," he said.

He added that if Democrats fail to pass their agenda many voters will have "a narrative that the party isn't delivering or can't govern."

"And since it's obvious to everyone that they're damned if they do and damned if they don't, both conservative and progressive Democrats will be using yesterday's results to justify their preferred path."

Joe Biden Campaigns with Terry McAuliffe
US President Joe Biden (L) greets Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe during a campaign event at Lubber Run Park, Arlington, Virginia on July 23, 2021. McAuliffe's defeat may be a warning for Democrats. Getty Images/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP