AMAC Exclusive – By – Daniel Roman
Virginia House District 63 pairs the heavily African American City of Petersburg, Virginia with the suburbs of Richmond in Chesterfield County. The seat, when redrawn by a court to “unpack” African American voters at the request of Democratic lawyers in 2016, had a population which was estimated at 35.5% white and 60.4% African American. Early on the morning of November 3rd, 2021, it was called for Republican Kim Taylor, whose 52%-48% victory over a Democratic incumbent provided the Republican Party with its 51st seat and a majority in the Virginia House of Delegates. While less dramatic than Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the result in House District 63 is a testament to the breadth of the coalition Youngkin managed to put together. While the establishment media is right to focus on the importance of education and the revolt against Critical Race Theory, they have portrayed the debate in racial terms. But it was Glenn Youngkin who managed to put together a multiracial coalition. And Terry McAuliffe who managed to improve on Joe Biden with just one group: white women with college-degrees.
Glenn Youngkin’s victory is extraordinary. It is without a doubt a repudiation of Joe Biden. But so was the close result in New Jersey, which seems to have been almost solely driven by revulsion at Biden. What happened in Virginia was something more. In a state which was viewed as “rapidly blueing,” one which many analysts argued was “too far gone” for a Republican to win, Glenn Youngkin did not merely “put the old gang back together.” Skeptics were right that Youngkin could not win merely by appealing to the George Allen coalition, a lesson Ed Gillespie had to learn twice.
What Youngkin did was win with a new coalition. He combined strong margins among traditional GOP voters – including historic margins and turnout from Trump-country voters in Southwest Virginia – while also making inroads with both suburban voters in Northern Virginia and, critically, African American voters. The latter may not have quite made the difference in the margin between Youngkin and McAuliffe. But without them, the GOP would not have won its legislative majority in Virginia, where the 51-49 Republican advantage in the House of Delegates now rests on having won two African American majority districts.
There are four areas where Youngkin did particularly well compared to past Republican statewide candidates which, on the whole, paint a decidedly pessimistic picture for Democrats nationally. If Democrats cannot secure large victories in these sorts of areas, where are their margins going to come from in future elections?
Most of the media coverage of the 2021 Virginia elections was focused on Northern Virginia, or ‘NoVa.’ In the final months of the campaign, the region became ground zero for battles over education, including COVID restrictions, in-person instruction, critical race theory, and a brutal sexual assault in Loudoun County by a young man wearing a skirt in a girls’ restroom. NoVa’s proximity to D.C. means that it is the backyard for political activists and journalists. It has grown extensively since 1990, making up an ever-greater share of the Virginia electorate. As the D.C. suburbs have grown, so too have the areas which are not culturally southern. Fairfax County, by far the most populous in the state, was a swing county as late as the 2004 presidential election. Loudoun and Prince William, two of the more densely populated NoVa counties, were tossups as late as 2016. Joe Biden won those three counties with 70%, 61% and 62% of the vote respectively.
Some of the more optimistic conservative commentators believed Glenn Youngkin could fully reverse this trend and maybe even outright win Loudoun or Prince William. The education issue was powerful. Much of Northern Virginia’s school systems had been shut down for 2020-2021 due to COVID. Parents were angry. Taxes were high.
While Youngkin dropped hints that he hoped to win Loudoun outright at campaign events, this was never really taken seriously by either campaign. The question was whether the trends could be arrested and at least partially turned back. And the answer was yes, they could, though the region likely remains gone for the GOP. This week, Terry McAuliffe carried the 8th, 11th, and 10th congressional districts, the latter two of which were held by the GOP until 2009 and 2019 respectively. But McAuliffe’s margins, and this was key, were reduced from prior Democrat victories. He only won the 10th by 3%, whereas Joe Biden had won it by 15%.
And this was the story of Northern Virginia. Loudoun was in many ways the Miami-Dade of 2021. In 2020, Miami Dade swung from 64-31% for Clinton in 2016 to 54-46% Biden in 2020. Observers who recall how Miami-Dade heralded a sea change in favor of Donald Trump and Republicans among Latino voters and Florida becoming a red state forget that Biden still actually won the county. The victory was turning a landslide margin into a narrow one.
The moment it became clear Youngkin was likely to win was when Loudoun dumped more than half of its results, which showed McAuliffe up only 53-46%. While the addition of early voting results pushed the margin to around 10.5%, or 55-44.5% by the end, that was sharply down from Biden’s 61-37% margin in 2020, and Ralph Northam’s 59-39% margin in 2017. This phenomenon was repeated in neighboring Prince William County, where Youngkin lost 53-46%, compared with a 61-38% loss for Gillespie in 2017. Closer to D.C., however, the improvement for Republicans was more marginal. In Fairfax County, the heart of Democratic Northern Virginia, Youngkin lost 65-34%, compared with a 68-31% loss for Gillespie in 2017. Youngkin improved only slightly in D.C.-adjacent Arlington and Alexandria Counties, where Gillespie had gotten 19% and 21% of the vote, respectively, and where Youngkin took 23% and 24%.
But this swing to Youngkin in Northern Virginia was still below the shift in votes that he needed to overturn Northam’s 9% statewide victory in 2017, especially as turnout was up. McAuliffe’s raw vote lead in Fairfax only declined to 130,000 from Northam’s 138,000. In other words, Youngkin’s improvements in Northern Virginia were themselves not enough to win the race.
And that is a key thing. Youngkin made gains in the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia, substantial ones, and inroads into the Beltway, but the latter were much smaller, well below what would have been needed to flip the state on that alone. If, as some coverage portrayed the election, it had really been a “race for Northern Virginia,” McAuliffe would have won. What most analysts missed was that there was much more to the race, and to Virginia, than that.
In an earlier piece for AMAC, I expressed concerns about low early in-person and mail turnout from Virginia’s 9th Congressional District in Southwest Virginia’s coal country. I worried that even with the sort of gains in Northern Virginia which ended up materializing, if high turnout did not occur in the Southwest part of the state, then it could all be for naught. I might as well not have worried. Youngkin held some of his final rallies in the area, and as much as the media liked to claim that Donald Trump’s involvement in the race was some sort of “trump card” which would save the Democrats, his telerallies likely helped in an area where he won more than 70% of the vote in 2020.
In fact, Youngkin did even better than Donald Trump’s 2020 performance in the region, winning the 9th Congressional District by a margin of 74-25% compared with 70-29% for Trump in 2020. And the turnout was almost at presidential levels. Buchanan County saw almost 6,000 votes cast, compared with 4,500 in 2017. Of those, Glenn Youngkin won 85%, up from Ed Gillespie’s 76%. In Wise County, 11,500 votes were cast in 2021 compared with 8,600 in 2017, and Youngkin won 84%, up from 77% for Gillespie in 2017.
Democrats have long believed that there is some sort of “floor” in these sorts of rural, coal mining areas below which they cannot fall, and therefore there is nothing to lose by not just ignoring the interests of the people who live there, but by outright attacking them, whether on culture or by trying to shut down the local economy through “green” policies. And they keep being proven wrong. These margins were massive for Youngkin, and while the population of these counties pales in comparison to that of Northern Virginia, these votes needed to be countered somewhere by Democrats, and holding the line in the Beltway was not enough, especially with lower margins in Loudoun County. However, the real kicker came in the South-Central part of the state.
The Richmond suburbs have played second fiddle to the D.C. exurbs when it comes to discussion of Virginia’s political trajectory. While they have not grown anywhere near as much, nor swung as far left, Democratic gains in Virginia Beach and the Richmond suburbs, especially in Chesterfield County, were key to the takeover of the Virginia legislature by Democrats in prior elections. An underestimated factor in this may well have been Ralph Northam. While Northam had few friends in the national media, as a somewhat moderate Democrat from the Chesapeake region with no D.C. media presence, he had home-base appeal in the area. In 2017, he won Virginia Beach 52-47%. In 2021, McAuliffe lost it to Youngkin 54-46%, one of the larger swings in the state.
Next to Virginia Beach lies the city of Norfolk. In 2017, the city went for Ralph Northam 74-25%. In 2021, McAuliffe only won it by a margin of 67-32%. African Americans made up 44% of the population at the time of the 2010 census. Across the Chesapeake lies Newport News, 49% white and 41% African American in 2010, which went from a Democratic margin of 65-34% in 2017 to 60-39% in 2021.
For all the charges aimed at Glenn Youngkin that he was somehow using “racist dog whistles” by calling out the use of racial essentialism in education, he made substantial gains in heavily African American areas. In fact, these gains, ranging from 5-7%, were much greater than his gains in heavily white Fairfax/Arlington/Alexandria, which tended to range from 3-4%. Given the historical inflexibility of these kinds of demographic voting patterns in the South, this is an enormous achievement. And it is one which cost the Democrats two African American-majority seats and their majority in the House of Delegates.
We also can tell from turnout, which was up substantially, that this was not merely a case of African Americans “not voting.” They actually switched over and cast ballots for Youngkin and other Republican candidates.
Perhaps the presence of Winsome Sears, a female African American, Jamaican immigrant, and former Marine on the Republican ticket as the nominee for Lieutenant Governor helped, but it also appears that the trends seen in in recent years of voters realigning on culture rather than race are continuing to grow. In a race this close, McAuliffe losing 5-7% margins in heavily African American areas ultimately proved fatal.
Youngkin’s New Coalition
When we look at the Virginia results, Glenn Youngkin made gains everywhere over Ed Gillespie in 2017. But Democrats won by 9% that year, and the areas they won most heavily have only grown in population. Youngkin’s gains were not equal everywhere, and he won because the smaller gains in places like Fairfax and the Beltway, along with the Richmond suburbs, were enough to prevent Democrats from making up for major swings in heavily African American parts of Hampton Roads and staunchly pro-Trump Southwest Virginia. Youngkin did enough to shrink margins in places like Fairfax and Chesterfield to prevent the areas he did well in from being outvoted, but he ultimately won as part of a wider team effort within the electorate.
By contrast, Democrats appear not to have tried to build any sort of broad coalition. Their strategy was clearly to squeeze enough votes out of Northern Virginia and college towns to drown the rest of the state. Logistically, their efforts were impressive. If someone had told an observer that Terry McAuliffe would win over 1.6 million votes, when the total electorate in 2017 and 2013 was only around 2.5 million, then they would have called an easy Democratic sweep. But Youngkin ran to be Governor of all of Virginia, not just Northern Virginia, and as a result the Democratic effort to swamp the state with Beltway ballots failed. The lesson should be taken that Republicans should cease ceding any voters, anywhere, to the Democratic Party, except perhaps increasingly radicalized whites with postgraduate degrees, because those margins matter. And Democrats have a lot of reflecting to do. There is a certain irony that they lost an election fought over dividing students on the basis of arbitrary characteristics because they tried to treat the entire election as simply a numbers game.
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 and a Master’s degree in Iranian Studies.