AMAC Exclusive by Daniel Roman
Conservatives have had little to celebrate in Virginia politics over the last decade. Since Republicans last swept the statewide offices in the 2009 off-year elections, Virginia’s political history has been the tale of the long march of the left through the states’ offices until Democrats took full control of both houses of the legislature in 2019. What followed was a near cultural revolution, as the new Democratic-dominated government passed laws restricting gun ownership, eliminated prison sentences for a host of offenses to public order, retroactively ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (a failed Constitutional Amendment from 1972), allowed for no-excuse absentee voting, and voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, thereby seeking to do an end-run around the Constitution in order to abolish the electoral college.
Yet the tide may finally be starting to turn against Virginia Democrats. On June 8th, the Democratic Party held its primaries – the Republican party having opted the month before for an “unassembled convention” – and the Left suffered a series of stunning defeats. Not only did “old white male” Terry McAuliffe, a former governor and long-time Clinton fixer and crony, easily defeat a diverse set of left-wing challengers with 62.17% of the vote, but several of the most left-wing members of the state legislature lost renomination.
This may be a sign that mainstream Democrats sense the growing backlash against their far-left governance of the state, and are eager to rid themselves of the most problematic figures on their own side.
In the general election, Democrats are now facing the most formidable Virginia Republican candidate in decades in the form of Glenn Youngkin.
Youngkin is running on the promise to provide a commonsense alternative and balance in Richmond. A successful businessman unconnected with the factional quarrels and failures which have come to define the last decade of Republican politics in Virginia, he emerged at the Republican convention with a message focusing on local issues of state governance. He is well placed to transcend the two major elements of the state. His tenure as CEO of the Carlyle Group, one of the premier success stories of Northern Virginia, makes him an embodiment of everything that attracted millions of new residents to the growing region. His strong conservatism shows that unlike many others who moved to the region for jobs, he knows precisely why Virginia—with its low taxes, low crime, and small government—historically proved more attractive than Maryland.
In effect, Glenn Youngkin is running a campaign challenging the left-wing transformation of Virginia by appealing to a more positive vision of the past. Previous Republican candidates, such as one-time Virginia Governor and former U.S. Senator George Allen, and 2017 Governor candidate Corey Stewart, ran afoul of public sentiment when they became associated with Confederate nostalgia. There was an irony here. Both were Northern migrants, Allen from California, and Stewart from Minnesota. Both fell too easily into the trap of playing a caricature, one which saw George Allen make an excruciating musical appearance as a singing Confederate officer in the film Gods and Generals, while Stewart seemed to make association with Confederate monuments and the flag the centerpiece of his campaigns, while mocking the immigrant ancestry of his primary rival Ed Gillespie.
Glenn Youngkin has no such need to prove his Virginia credentials. Youngkin was born in Richmond, grew up in Virginia Beach, and attended school in Norfolk. A native Virginian all his life, one with experience of different parts of the Commonwealth, Youngkin has no need to create a fictionalized past to contrast with the present. He can and is appealing to a real past. A past in which Virginia’s commitment to small government and individual liberty helped light the fires of the American Revolution, and to save it from the excesses of Alexander Hamilton’s efforts to impose centralized rule with the Alien and Sedition acts. He is reminding Virginians that their state is the land of Patrick Henry and George Washington.
Virginia’s history is also one in which the Republican Party played a proud role. In the 1880s, the Republican Party ruled the state, introducing the first integrated public school system and seeking to eliminate racial differences, only to be overthrown through fraud by a Democratic Party which argued that different races could never work together. That is a tradition the Democratic Party is still following today through its promotion of Critical Race Theory in Virginia schools. There is no need for Republicans to reject their history when it was a former Confederate General, one of Robert E. Lee’s hardest hitting commanders, William Mahone, who oversaw that multi-racial Republican political coalition in 1881, one of the first in the nation.
As a true-born Virginian, and a native Republican, Youngkin has been able to appeal to the best of the state’s identity in offering a conservative alternative to the far-left liberalism of the statewide elected Democrats and the awkward confederate nostalgia of migrant politicians in both parties.
Voters appear to be responding to this message. In post-primary polls, Youngkin is neck and neck with Democrat Terry McAuliffe, trailing by a mere 48%-46% no small achievement given McAuliffe’s name recognition as a former governor. It is even more impressive when one considers that Donald Trump lost the state by nearly 10% in 2020 after losing it by 5% in 2016. It is also worth noting that McAuliffe in particular has a history of massively underperforming his polling numbers. In 2013, when he last ran for governor, he led by an average of 7% only to win by 2%. If that pattern holds, it would imply that Youngkin is currently ahead.
Furthermore, there are signs that even Democrats are concerned about the political impact of their far-left governance in the commonwealth. Three of the most left-wing members of the legislature lost renomination.
One of them was Ibraheem Samirah in the 86th District, who famously disrupted a speech in Jamestown, Virginia by President Donald Trump in 2019. President Trump was the honored guest of the Virginia General Assembly that had convened in special session to celebrate its 400th anniversary as the oldest legislative assembly in the Western Hemisphere. Samirah shouted and held up signs that said “Deport Hate,” “Reunite My Family” and “Go Back to Your Corrupted Home.” “The fact that the racist-in-chief, who so openly stokes hate against immigrants, was even invited to this event is insulting to Virginians and insulting to the history of our Commonwealth’s democracy,” Samirah later wrote on Twitter, declaring “The man is unfit for office and unfit to partake in a celebration of democracy, representation, and our nation’s history of immigrants.” On June 8th, 2021, voters in Samirah’s district decided he was unfit for office, evicting him by a 52%-48% margin in favor of a Jewish challenger who denounced his support for Ilhan Omar.
In the 50th district, Lee Carter, a two-term state representative who described himself openly as a “Socialist” and co-chaired Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the state not only failed to make a dent in his run for governor, winning a mere 2.77%, but also was defeated for renomination to the legislature with only 38% of the vote.
The most prominent figure ousted was Mark Levine, a longtime fixture of the left who also ran for Lt. Governor. Levine had argued against the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision in 2001, calling Bush an “illegitimate” President and served as Counsel to Representative Barney Frank where he tried to argue that Faith-Based Initiatives were unconstitutional. Levine not only was defeated for Lt. Governor. He lost his seat in the House of Delegates on the same day.
There are five months to go until election day, but signs are that Republicans have the best chance in 12 years to reverse Virginia’s bluing trend. They have a star candidate, a united party, and are facing a Democratic Party that has embraced left-wing extremism in office. All they need is a little luck—and they may succeed in turning Virginia red.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.