The election of Glenn Youngkin as governor of Virginia is a bad sign, for a long list of reasons. The Republican’s victory is a frightening portent for future elections and the role that the culture war will play in them.
In the simplest terms, the results are bound to disappoint Democrats. A state that has had Democratic governors since 2014 showed that it’s not the Democratic stronghold that everyone thought.
In part that’s on Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who didn’t run a great campaign. Moreover, Republicans turned out in huge numbers, showing just how resonant Youngkin’s message was with them.
But Virginia being less Democratic than people though is the least of the problems. It was the first major post-Trump election. Given a choice between a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate and a Biden follower, Virginians chose the Republican. It’s as if the Capitol insurrection just over the state border never happened. And it was a signal that the Trump playbook can still succeed, even in a state that trends Democratic.
Youngkin never held political office before. He seemed to be just a standard-issue business Republican, but he went in hard for the Trump vote.
Trump endorsed him, and Youngkin played the endorsement for all it was worth. On the eve of the election, at a phone rally, Trump called Youngkin a “fantastic guy.”
From Trump’s perspective, he no doubt was. Youngkin discarded any pretense of moderation and channeled his inner Trump as a culture warrior. Youngkin used the dog whistle of Critical Race Theory to make racism an issue in the campaign. He pledged to ban abortion. He came out against marriage equality.
But most of all, Youngkin made schools the main theme of his campaign. It wasn’t just Critical Race Theory, which Youngkin pledged to remove from schools, even though it’s not taught in any public schools. Youngkin also ran his campaign on the backs of transgender students, which was unsurprising for a man who called trans girls “biological males.”
Youngkin explicitly appealed to the right wing and the transphobia that it has displayed in school board battles. It’s not by chance that some of the most vicious attacks on trans students have come in Virginia, particularly at the Loudon County school board. Youngkin seized upon these attacks as his ticket to the governor’s mansion.
Youngkin dressed the issue up as a matter of parental control, but that was window dressing. Youngkin was really appealing to the same base instincts that led to a vicious verbal attacks on trans students at school board meetings.
Similarly, he said he “loved everyone” when he came out against marriage equality. It’s a fig leaf to cover the radical belief, one that the Christian right can see right through.
Perhaps the worst outcome from the election is that it affirms Trump’s control over the GOP. Trump will take credit for Youngkin’s election. Whether or not he deserves it doesn’t matter.
A loss would have been a repudiation of Trump. Instead, Virginia voters just validated him and his record of hatred. That will buoy the hopes of Republicans around the nation.
It also sends a warning signal to everyone else that the authoritarianism that characterizes the GOP these days may be the future.