So why the upset? How did Youngkin win? Well, here are my key resaons for Virginia, at least for election night 2021 turned red giving Youngkin a Republican House of Delegates; finishing with 52 seats. Here are my reasons for the Younkin victory:
Being a former Governor didn't help McAuliffe.
Virginia has a long, and in my opinion, great tradition of one term Governors, in fact the tradition is enshrined in our state's constitution, a Virginia governor cannot succeed himself. However, the constitution does not prevent them from running in the future for the Governor's office, Terry McAuliffe was eligible to run in 2021, that is, he could run to succeed Ralph Northam. I think Virginians are happy, indeed I would say downright proud, of the tradition of one term Governors. The only Governor in modern Virginia history to make it back to the Governor's office was Mills Godwin, a truly great Governor. However, his second election to the office was quite close. He defeated Henry Howell 50.7% to 49.3% Officially Howell ran as an independent. At the time Howell was considered too far left for Virgina Democrats, so they didn't nominate him, in fact they didn't nominate a candidate, simply quietly voting for Howell. Howell was far left by the 1970's standard, but today he'd be a moderate Democrat. For example there is no evidence that he believed in anything like critical race theory, gender neutral bathrooms, or porn in the school libraries. Seems it was his support for organized labor that earned him the label of a liberal. It struck me that despite Godwin's popularity and Howell's radicalism, it was still close. Godwin squeaked by, but the lesson is that it is tough for a former Governor to make it back, even a popular one like Godwin. The bottom line, unless the Governor is popular, or better yet known for some great achievement Virginians aren't going to bring them back. So when the media described McAuliffe as a "former Governor" it didn't help him. By default Virginians would probably want to give someone else a shot at the job.
"Youngkin is Trump in a fleece vest."
McAuliffe seemed to have only one play, tie Youngkin to Trump. It makes some political sense, Trump lost Virginia big, so the desire to link fellow Republican Youngkin to Trump is understandable. The problem with the strategy is that it was not believable. Exit polls showed Virginians had a favorable view of Youngkin, unlike Trump. In addition to linking them both as Republicans, McAuliffe tried to make a link in two dishonest ways. He used a sound bite of Youngkin claiming that Trump inspired him to run, "Donald Trump is the reason I got into the race." Youngkin simply meant that he like Trump was a political novice, and business executive, and like Trump he could enter government and make change. McAuliffe tried to claim Youngkin was inspired by Trump's political views to run. The second way the McAuliffe campaign tried to link the two is the claim that Trump "endorsed Youngkin". McAuliffe even sent out mailers making the claim. I received one of these mailers with the headline "Trump Endorsed." But I then noticed this came from the McAuliffe campaign. Trump didn't endorse a candidate in the nomination battle. Once Youngkin became the nominee Trump said nice things about him and in a sense endorsed him in the general election. But of course, Trump was going to back the Republican gubernatorial nominee. That is not the same as endorsing a candidate. There is very little similarity between Trump and Youngkin, both in terms of substance and style. Glenn Youngkin is a traditional family man, I think married to the same woman, that is never divorced, he is known to be a man of faith, and his personality and demeanor can in no way be described as Trump like. Youngkin came across like a normal person, quite earnest and sincere. As they say he was comfortable in his own skin, or in his case a fleece vest jacket. The bottom-line McAuliffe hurt himself by exaggerating a connection between Youngkin to Trump. It made some sense, after all Trump is unpopular in Virginia, but the comparison was such a stretch that it called in to question McAuliffe's sincerity. It also seemed McAuliffe had nothing else on which to attack Youngkin. From the minute Youngkin became the Republican nominee in May, McAuliffe tried to tie him to Trump. The amazing thing, that from that day to election day there was no evidence that I am aware of that shows the strategy was working. Yet McAuliffe kept on crying Trump. What's the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over again and expecting a different results. I don't think McAuliffe is insane, simply that he had nothing else to hit Youngkin with.
Governor Northam's Shutdown
In response to the covid pandemic Governor Ralph Northam issued orders in late March 2020 curtailing private business operations and shutting down schools, forcing the school districts to open virtual learning. This shutdown lasted to some extent into the summer. History will judge whether the long shutdown was a good idea, but there is no doubt that it crippled many small and mid-sized businesses in Virginia. From a political standpoint the shutdown left a bad taste in the mouths of many small business owners. And those people probably had second thoughts about voting for another Democrat candidate for governor. The more significant fallout from the shutdown came from parents who got a good look at what their children were being taught in school. Since the school buildings were closed the parents were in charge of administering the school's curriculum to their children. This was a wakeup call! Most parents, like most adults, have accepted that they will be subjected to indoctrination at work, but they will not accept their kids being subjected to indoctrination. Clinging to his base perhaps McAuliffe denied that the schools were indoctrinating kids in schools. Even denying the existence of critical race theory. As bad luck (for him) would have it, a memo from his administration confirming the theory and its use in Virginia schools surfaced.
"Parents have no business telling schools what to teach."
If there ever was a killer moment or gaffe in this race it came in the second and final debate. In a question on education McAuliffe opined angerly, "Parents have no business telling schools what to teach." Youngkin smartly seized on it, and within 24 hours his campaign ran ads using the quote. The reasons we have elected school boards is to give parents a voice in how schools are run, and yes what is in the curriculum. In addition to being elitist McAuliffe's statement runs against the notion of schools being accountable. The remarkable thing is that McAuliffe doubled down on the comment. Perhaps he felt he needed to stick close to the teacher union, but it probably would have been better to walk back the statement. Offer a clarification and clearly state the importance of parental involvement. Instead, he stuck with the teacher union line that the parents are out of control.
Biden unpopularity was a factor.
Virginia elected Joe Biden, and after one year they have had enough. An exit poll had Biden's approval rating at 46 percent. No doubt about it, Biden helped turn out Republicans and depressed voters that usually vote Democrat but are disappointed in the last Democrat they voted for. Now McAuliffe is not responsible for Biden's unpopularity, but he is responsible for his embrace of Biden. He could have tried to distance himself, instead he invited him to come to Virginia and campaign. Ironically, McAuliffe needled Youngkin for not inviting Trump to Virginia to campaign with him. Youngkin was wise not to take the bait. Trump stayed out and that was to the benefit of Youngkin. However, McAuliffe should have followed Youngkin's example and not invited Biden to come to campaign. Trump might be politically toxic in Virginia, but Biden is not held in much higher esteem in the Old Dominion.