Power & Market

Paul Gottfried on the Virginia Election

As I was listening to Fox News describe the expected victory of Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia gubernatorial race during the evening of November 2 and then to the happy talk that followed the next morning after Youngkin squeaked out a two-point victory, I kept thinking about how the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described the French Revolution:

All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time … as if the reconciliation of heaven and earth were now first accomplished.

This was exactly the tone in which Laura Ingraham, Brian Kilmeade, Sean Hannity, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and other conservative establishment dignitaries were describing Youngkin’s performance in the Virginia gubernatorial race. This chorus also alternated between disparaging Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, and praising their guy for his brilliant campaigning, which had resulted in his come-from-behind victory. Youngkin’s triumph also supposedly aided the new lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, a black woman and former Marine, and the new attorney general, Jason Miyares, the son of Cuban immigrants, win their campaigns as well. (Neither seems to have won on Youngkin’s coattails.)

Allow me to enter a few qualifiers. Admittedly McAuliffe made a few gaffes; for example, when he stated that parents should not have a say in the content of their children’s public school education. Despite embarrassing moments, the Democratic candidate generally ran a competent if not noteworthy campaign and came close to winning by the end of election night. Although he was elected once to the governorship, in 2013, this happened at a time when he was not hobbled by the overshadowing presence of a failing Democratic administration in neighboring Washington. There was no way the Democratic candidate could not be affected by Biden’s low approval numbers, which even in Virginia are now well below water. He was also running in a year following his party’s victory in the presidential race and gains in the Senate. The party out of power usually holds an advantage at such times and does better than the party in power because it is seen as a counterweight. Moreover, McAuliffe could not dissociate himself entirely from national politics because he was a national Democratic figure closely allied to the Clintons for decades. He also would have had to deal with the parental revolt against the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) even if he were not a national celebrity and even if he had limited himself entirely to “local issues.”

Please note that it was under his administration that CRT was introduced into Virginia public education. Like other Democrats, McAuliffe is heavily beholden to the teachers’ union for funds and volunteers. McAuliffe was not likely to abandon a keystone of the Democrats’ fundraising apparatus to side with irate parents in Loudon County. The American Federation of Teachers is enthusiastically backing the teaching of CRT and has created a legal fund in defense of those who are prevented from teaching it. McAuliffe understandably picked the union over the angry parents and assumed that he would do well because of his party’s entrenched strength in Loudon and Fairfax Counties, from whence the loudest educational protests were issuing. (Given the electoral results, McAuliffe mostly guessed right.) Finally, by backing CRT (without calling it that) McAuliffe was strengthening his bond with those black voters who view opponents of CRT as antiblack. McAuliffe made an additional useful move in terms of solidifying black support when he invited black Democratic congressman Jim Clyburn and former president Barack Obama to stump for him.  

McAuliffe’s black defense line held, and on Election Day he came away with the lion’s share of the votes cast by Virginia blacks. The Democratic candidate further appealed to his largely monolithic black Democratic base when in the final days of the campaign, he called for hiring more black teachers (presumably at the expense of white and Asian applicants). McAuliffe did this without taking a hit among college-educated women, 67 percent of whom voted for him because of his advocacy of abortion rights through the third trimester.

A tireless worker, Youngkin ran a disciplined campaign that resulted in a narrow victory. His most successful strategy was not repudiating but also not identifying too closely with Donald Trump. To his credit, Youngkin ran up even larger pluralities than Trump in the conservative southwestern parts of Virginia and in suburban Richmond. His clock was cleaned, however, in Northern Virginia counties, but he didn’t lose them quite as disastrously as Trump did last year. But it would be ridiculous to describe Youngkin’s showing in Loudon and Fairfax Counties, where he lost by almost two-thirds of the votes, as making significant inroads among Democratic suburban parents. The most that can be said about the Republican’s performance there is that he kept his losses in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia a few points lower than the Trump campaign did in 2020. Despite the usual GOP hype about bringing blacks into the party, Youngkin lost about 87 percent of the black vote. The minority with whom Youngkin did well was Hispanics, 54 percent of whom voted for him. But this continues a trend that was already evident in Trump’s electoral returns last year.

One reason Republican journalists and media personalities underestimated McAuliffe as a strategist is they looked down at his morally dubious campaign. McAuliffe swung away indiscriminately at Republicans as racists and white nationalists, while steadily stoking racial division wherever he went. He also tried dishonestly to tie Youngkin to Trump (whom suburban Virginians seem to hate), although Youngkin was running a campaign in which Trump played no role, outside of a perfunctory endorsement. When the Lincoln Project arranged to have men impersonating white nationalists meeting Youngkin’s bus in Charlottesville and declaring their support for him, McAuliffe’s staff happily pushed the hoax, even after they knew it was false. It is not without basis that McAuliffe gained a reputation as the Clintons’ “bagman.”

In my view, however, it may be necessary to separate moral judgments from an evaluation of McAuliffe’s campaign strategy. What he did generally worked to elicit votes for his party in what was bound to be a disappointing year, even in a state trending firmly blue. Despite this obstacle McAuliffe almost pulled out the race in the face of Biden’s low approval ratings, which continued to plummet during the Virginia campaign. If Youngkin’s holding on with his fingernails during election night represents a world historical event, then I and the spin doctors on Fox may not be living on the same planet.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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