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Glenn Youngkin’s Victory Is a Warning for Democrats

Glenn Youngkin’s Victory Is a Warning for Democrats

The Republican Glenn Youngkin, a fifty-four-year-old first-time candidate and the former C.E.O. The Carlyle Group was elected governor of Virginia Tuesday night. It was a narrow but clear victory. This was a flip of political control in a state that Joe Biden won by ten points twelve months ago. Youngkin’s opponent was Terry McAuliffe, a centrist Democrat with deep ties to the national Party establishment, who was Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018, and who had initially been favored. But Youngkin mobilized Republican voters against progressive control of education in much of the state: against the hesitancy of many schools to reopen quickly after COVID, against what they saw as the intrusion of critical race theory into curricula, against the affirmation of fluid gender identity and norms among public-school students. At rallies to support McAuliffe, Biden and Barack Obama described Youngkin as rich and out of touch (as they had once described Mitt Romney) and his politics as extreme (the way they had once described Donald Trump). Both of these lines failed. At the end of the race, the Democrats insisted that Trump’s ideas were on ballot and the Republicans were pretending that they didn’t matter.

Trump’s absence–or at least his intermittent, bleating semi-presence, like a radio that has been stuffed in a closet without being turned off–made this race different from those of the past four years. Youngkin’s rise in the polls made Republican operatives giddy. This was not only because they suddenly appeared to have a good chance of winning political control in a reliably Blue state (fourteen of Virginia’s five previous governors were Democrats), but also because a moderate Republican had managed generate political heat in the most conservative areas of Virginia. “Seems like he outperformed Trump by a lot with non-college-educated white voters,” the election analyst Ryan Matsumoto noted. The Party establishment made a bargain with Trump and accepted his illiberalism in return for the Party’s votes. But what if the establishment doesn’t need him for the votes anymore? “I’ll just say it: Glenn Youngkin should seriously consider running for president in 2024,” the anti-Trump conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat tweeted, maybe a little breathlessly, on Tuesday evening. “Hard to beat Trump, but easier if you own the libs on the scale we seem to be seeing tonight.”

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Had Virginia’s been the only major election held last night, that might have been the story: a turn in the Republican Party, back toward its traditional self. The pattern was similar in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, which suggests deeper problems for Democrats. The incumbent Democrat, Phil Murphy, won the 2017 election by fourteen percentage points–slightly less than the margin by which Biden defeated Trump in New Jersey in 2020. Murphy was expected to easily defeat his opponent, Jack Ciattarelli (a former Raritan legislator who campaigned largely to challenge Murphy’s response on the pandemic). However, the race was too close to call on Wednesday morning. This had nothing to do with Youngkin, and little to do with the culture-war issues that had surfaced in the Virginia race.

It is beginning to seem that Biden’s Presidency is in trouble. In the course of the summer, his public approval collapsed: in June, a little more than fifty per cent of voters approved of the job he was doing and a little more than forty per cent disapproved, but those numbers have now reversed. “Biden has nearly the worst approval ratings of any president on record at this stage of his presidency,” the Times election guru Nate Cohn tweeted late last night. “Just something to remember if you’re struggling with understanding what happened tonight.” It was difficult to determine why the Presidency that seemed popular lost so much support, even for professionals. There are both mundane factors (gas prices have risen this summer) as well as ideological reasons (the Republicans have been arguing about progressive positions on schools and crime and homelessness). The scale of votes last night suggested a simpler dynamic in which Democrats control most of the political institutions but are unable to direct them effectively. The President’s entire domestic agenda has seemed more or less stuck on Joe Manchin’s houseboat; his Independence Day declaration of freedom from the coronavirus pandemic immediately proved premature. The high turnout in red districts showed that Republicans were motivated to vote against Democratic Control. But who were the Democrats supposed to vote for?

Biden’s coalition suddenly seems fragile. It is possible for the coalition to be shattered without the strong presence of the fear of Trump. There are college-educated Democrats on either side, working class ones on both, and progressives on the other. In retrospect, the panics that dominated Fox News this summer–over critical race theory, the crisis at the border, and crime in the cities–look almost algorithmic, a conservative movement testing the familiar wedge issues to see what worked. During the 2020 Democratic Presidential primaries, there was a lot of hopeful talk that the long post-Reagan conservative regime had reached its breaking point, that younger voters were spurring a transition to a new, more progressive era. Tuesday’s elections were in two states that were not part of the regular year. They did provide a point for skepticism. This generational change may not be as powerful, at least for the moment, than the pattern that is called education polarization. Voters with college degrees are tending to vote for the Republicans, while those without one are voting for the Democrats. If Trump is gone, American politics may not have changed much.

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