Republican Glenn Youngkin upset Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, breaking his party’s losing streak in the state and giving the GOP a reason to be optimistic heading into the congressional elections next year.
Multiple news outlets called the race with 95% of the vote counted, Mr. Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, had 51% of the vote. Mr. McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, had 48% of the vote.
“Alrighty, Virginia, we won this thing!” a jubilant Mr. Youngkin told the crowd at his election night party in Chantilly. “My fellow Virginians, we stand here this morning at this defining moment, a defining moment that, yes, started, yes, with two people on a walk, and a defining moment that is now millions of Virginians walking together.”
“Together we will change the trajectory of the commonwealth and, friends, we are going to start that transformation on Day One,” he said. “There is no time to waste. Our kids can’t wait — we work in real people time, not government time.”
Turnout was up across Virginia and set a new record for gubernatorial elections in a state that President Biden carried by 10 percentage points a year ago.
Mr. Youngkin’s come-from-behind victory allows Republicans to breathe a sigh of relief after watching the state trend blue and Democrats dominate fast-growing suburbs on former President Trump’s watch.
It also could provide a surge of enthusiasm for Republicans as they turn their attention to flipping control of the House and Senate in the midterm elections.
The GOP was closing in on a statewide sweep in Virginia on Tuesday — the first time the party pulled off that feat since 2009.
Republican Winsome Sears led Democrat Hala Ayala in the race for lieutenant governor and Republican Jason Miyares was up in the race against incumbent Democrat Mark Herring in the race for attorney general.
Votes were still being counted in the battle for control of the House of Delegates. The early tallies suggested Republicans were within striking distance of flipping the chamber.
Democrats are going to have to do some soul-searching as they look to regroup ahead of the elections next year and keep their activists and donors engaged.
Mr. McAuliffe ultimately failed to excite Democratic voters and even blamed Mr. Biden’s lackluster performance in Washington with sapping enthusiasm in the party.
The enthusiasm gap was palpable on Election Day.
“They’re not really supporting our candidates,” Arlington Democratic Party volunteer Justin Boadner, 23, said of the party’s voters as he worked the polls Tuesday. “It’s more of a fear of Trumpism or having someone that supports Donald Trump in office, but they’re hating our candidate.”
Mr. McAuliffe labored to make the race a referendum on Mr. Trump, but his rhetoric fell flat. It just didn’t have the same salience as when Mr. Trump was in the White House.
Indeed, the anti-Trump message helped power Gov. Ralph Northam to victory in 2017 and helped Democrats capture both chambers of the state legislature in 2019, giving them complete control of Richmond for the first time since 1993.
In the 2021 race, Mr. Youngkin kept Mr. Trump at arm’s length. He welcomed the former president’s endorsement and played footsie with some of his more controversial supporters and ideas. But he opted not to campaign with Mr. Trump and refused to fully embrace the former president’s stolen election claims from 2020.
It proved to be enough to avoid the wrath of Mr. Trump, who urged his supporters this week to “flood the system and get out and vote” for Mr. Youngkin.
Mr. Youngkin also emphasized local issues, including education and schools, tapping into a growing national backlash from parents outraged by what is going on in schools.
He vowed to cut taxes, reduce regulations, defend the state’s right-to-work laws and create 400,000 new jobs. He said he would increase the salaries of law enforcement officers and teachers, and he vowed to ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools.
He said people should get vaccinated for the coronavirus but opposed government mandates, and he called for more parental involvement in schools.
Mr. Youngkin, a multimillionaire, loaned his campaign $20 million, helping get out his message and overcome Mr. McAuliffe’s strong name ID in the state.
The strategy worked, allowing him to thread a political needle between energizing Trump loyalists and appealing to moderate voters unhappy with the policies coming from one-party Democratic rule in Richmond and Washington.
Mr. Youngkin ran up his margins of victory in the rural parts of the state and performed well enough in key battleground Washington suburbs in northern Virginia to dash Mr. McAuliffe’s hopes of returning to the governor’s mansion.
Republicans touted the Youngkin victory as proof that voters are losing confidence in Mr. Biden and Democrats calling the shots in Congress.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, said the results showed “hard-working Americans are fed up with failed, Far-left politicians who are destroying our economy with Socialist tax-and-spend policies and infiltrating our classrooms with their radical agenda.”
“Glenn Youngkin kicked off the 2022 Red Wave early, and Republicans are now more energized than ever to take back the House and fire Lame Duck Speaker Nancy Pelosi once and for all,” the New York Republican said in a statement.
Mr. McAuliffe struggled with those headwinds coming out of Washington, where Mr. Biden and Democrats have been at loggerheads over massive spending deals.
Nonetheless, Mr. McAuliffe campaigned with Mr. Biden, hoping it would provide him with a jolt.
He also stumped with Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Barack Obama and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams over the homestretch of the campaign.
But it wasn’t enough to change the trajectory of a race.
Mr. Trump celebrated the Youngkin win by crediting “my BASE” with fueling the victory.
“I would like to thank my BASE for coming out in force and voting for Glenn Youngkin,” Mr. Trump said in a statement. “Without you, he would not have been close to winning.”
The finger-pointing among Democrats started immediately.
“Terry McAuliffe sadly can blame his loss on a few corporate-aligned obstructionist Democrats who blocked bold action in Congress, plus his own reliance on backward-looking Trump messaging,” the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement. “The lesson going into 2022 is that Democrats need to use power to get big things done for working people and then run on those accomplishments. Period. Democrats won’t win simply by branding one opponent after another as a Trump clone, and then hoping to squeak out a razor-thin win.”
Exit polls in Virginia showed Mr. Biden’s approval rating was underwater with the electorate, with 45% approving of his job performance and the remainder disapproving.
Mr. Youngkin edged out Mr. McAuliffe among independent voters.
Mr. McAuliffe made matters worse for himself in the final debate when he stated: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Mr. Younking pounced, seizing on the comment as an opportunity to connect with voters that have grown frustrated during the pandemic over school closures, mask mandates and a creeping sense that schools weren’t listening to the burgeoning concerns of parents.
Mr. Youngkin said it was clear proof Mr. McAuliffe adhered to a nanny state vision that says the government, not parents, knows best.
In the ensuing weeks, the race tightened.
Voters on Tuesday said Mr. Youngkin’s message resonated with them.
Denise Trab, 44, of Arlington, said Mr. Youngkin won her vote, citing his message on education and parental involvement in schools.
“I don’t stick to one party versus the other, but I look at the candidates and the platform they’re running on, then I decide,” Ms. Trab, an independent, said. “Glenn Youngkin, in this particular case, I was much more likely to support.”
Preliminary exit polls showed Mr. Youngkin received the support of 56% of voters that viewed education as their top issue and that he was winning 76% of voters that believe parents should have “a lot” of say in what schools teach.