Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, the Fox News Decision Desk projects, in a closely watched statewide election with national implications that McAuliffe was once expected to win.
"Alrighty Virginia, we won this thing," Youngkin told supporters in his victory speech a little after 1 AM Wednesday.
And he vowed that "together, we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth."
Youngkin. a first time candidate who hails from the business wing of the GOP, ran a disciplined campaign, focusing on taxes, crime, and holding public schools accountable to parents, while McAuliffe spent much of his fire power the past couple of months linking Youngkin to former President Donald Trump.
And McAuliffe continued to nationalized the race, campaigning during the final weeks leading up to the election with President Biden, Vice President Harris, former President Obama, and other top Democrats, in an unsuccessful attempt to boost his fortunes.
Two months ago, McAuliffe held a mid-single-digit lead in a state that Biden won by 10 points over then-President Trump just a year ago, but Youngkin erased the former governor's advantage in the closing stretch of the campaign.
We are also watching the gubernatorial results in the blue state of New Jersey. That contest, between Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican nominee Jack Ciattarelli, tightened in recent weeks and was too close to project a winner early on Wednesday morning.
With Virginia’s gubernatorial race considered a key bellwether ahead of next year’s midterm elections, Youngkin’s victory in a state where Republicans hadn’t won statewide in a dozen years will only increase Democratic anxieties as they try to defend their razor-thin House and Senate majorities in 2022.
Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, won thanks to a wave of Republican voter enthusiasm, and by tapping into the anger of parents over decisions by their local school boards.
"We’re going to embrace our parents, not ignore them," he emphasized in his victory speech.
And he touted that "a campaign that came from nowhere…turned into a movement."
Youngkin made major gains among suburban voters, who fueled the 2018 blue wave that helped the Democrats win back the House and Biden’s presidential victory over Trump one year ago. McAuliffe underperformed Biden in Virginia’s suburbs. Most glaring was Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County - ground zero for the education culture wars - which Biden carried by 25 points a year ago, but McAuliffe won by just over 10 points.
"I've just felt this great surge of momentum for the last six to eight weeks," Youngkin emphasized at a polling station in Chantilly, Virginia early on Election Day.
The former governor had been battling complacency among Democratic voters who may be demoralized by Biden's flagging poll numbers and frustrated with the current lack of progress by the president and congressional Democrats on their social spending and human infrastructure measure and other top priorities.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states to hold gubernatorial races in the year after a presidential election, guaranteeing they both grab outsized attention. And both states have a tradition of voting against the gubernatorial nominee of the party that won the White House the previous year.
While neither the president nor the former president were on the ballot, Biden and Trump were front and center in the race.
A Democratic defeat in Virginia in the first major election during Biden’s tenure in the White House serves as a major political setback for a president who’s already endured a very rocky late summer and autumn.
McAuliffe, hoping to fire up Democrats, brought in his party’s biggest stars to join him on the campaign trail. And the former governor hasn’t wasted an opportunity at his events, in his interviews, and in his campaign’s statements and ads to link Youngkin to Trump, who’s endorsed the GOP nominee.
"Youngkin’s entire campaign has been a full embrace of Donald Trump’s dangerous extremism: divisive culture wars, racist dog whistles and bigotry," McAuliffe charged on Monday.
The strategy was simple – during his years in the White House Trump was a lightning rod that ignited Democratic turnout. McAuliffe’s hoping for a repeat performance in a state where polls indicate the former president remains very unpopular with Democrats and independent voters. But in the end, it wasn't successful.
While careful not to turn off Trump’s base of voters, Youngkin’s kept the former president at an arm’s length during the general election campaign and didn’t take part in a Trump tele-rally on the candidate’s behalf on Election Eve.
As Youngkin caught up with McAuliffe in public opinion polling this autumn, helping to fuel his surge was the combustible issue of education and schools.
"I’m on the side of the parents and children and teaches, and I think this has become the big issue in this race," Youngkin stressed Tuesday on Fox News "America’s Newsroom."
Public school education has traditionally been a leading issue in gubernatorial contests across the country. But amid a year and a half of frustration over school closures and mask mandates due to the coronavirus pandemic and the push by conservatives nationwide to target race-focused curriculum, including this year’s well-publicized battles in Loudoun County over critical race theory Republicans now see education and parents’ rights as a winning issue to try and recapture suburban voters who fled the GOP during Trump’s White House tenure.
An unforced error by McAuliffe further fueled the GOP fire, as Republicans spotlighted a clip from the second and final debate between the two candidates where the former governor said "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."
In the weeks after the clip went viral, polls in Virginia showed education surging to become the second most pressing issue on the minds of voters. And the same surveys indicated that McAuliffe, who kicked off his gubernatorial campaign at a public school in Richmond as he spotlighted his education proposals, had lost his advantage on the issue.
Thanks to Youngkin's win, expect his push to stand up for parents to be a blueprint for the GOP as the party aims to win back both houses of Congress in next year’s midterms.
"I think it’s clearly going to be a big issue," Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), told Fox News last week.
While it’s dangerous to read too much into the results in Virginia, the state has a history of voting against the gubernatorial nominee of the party that captured the White House the preceding year. McAuliffe broke that streak in 2013, when he won his first term as governor the year after Obama was reelected as president. Virginia state law prevents governors from serving consecutive terms.
McAuliffe’s 2013 gubernatorial victory didn’t foreshadow the GOP’s red wave in the 2014 midterms, when they recaptured the Senate. But former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2009 victory in Virginia – a year after Obama captured the White House – did precede the GOP tidal wave of 2010, when the party retook the House. And Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s victory in 2017 – a year after Trump won the presidency, teed up the Democrats’ blue wave in the 2018 midterms, when they convincingly won back the House majority.