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How McAuliffe Lost Virginia

An uninspiring candidate with no big ideas and terrible messaging.
by Jim Swift
November 3, 2021
How McAuliffe Lost Virginia
Voters listen as Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during a “Parents Matter GOTV Rally” October 13, 2021 in Culpeper, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Going into the 2021 gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state that Joe Biden won by ten points, former governor Terry McAuliffe likely reasoned that he had a good chance of repeating his remarkable feat from eight years earlier:

But McAuliffe made mistake after mistake on the campaign trail, most notoriously his debate line “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” His opponent, Glenn Youngkin, was walking a tightrope between keeping the MAGA base happy and riling up the suburban Northern Virginia voters about schools and critical race theory. McAuliffe’s debate flub was a gigantic gift to Youngkin—just check out the rightward shift in Loudoun County, one of many locations in the state where schools were a huge issue:

McAuliffe, as uncharming and uninspiring a candidate as the Democratic donor echelon could construct, never regained his footing. He staked his bid on the fact that Youngkin was endorsed by Donald Trump. That is a valid criticism, and could in theory have worked in Virginia—as a supplement for a solid, substantial campaign. But McAuliffe had “no big memorable proposal” for his campaign, so he made Youngkin’s supposed Trumpiness the core of his message. He sounded like a broken record: Youngkin and Trump, Youngkin and Trump, Youngkin and Trump. Virginia voters were unconvinced.

Three other brief takeaways from Tuesday night:

(1) One lopsided aspect of the campaign is striking. In the final weeks, McAuliffe brought in some of the Democratic party’s big guns to help out his campaign: Joe Biden. Barack Obama. Tim Kaine. By contrast, Youngkin didn’t want Donald Trump to stump for him. The Democratic big guns sure didn’t seem very big this time around.

(2) Let’s be clear: What Glenn Youngkin achieved is impressive, but it will likely prove hard to replicate elsewhere. Had COVID-19 not existed and had the Virginia GOP not run a bastard primary to screw over Amanda Chase, he would probably not be the nominee.

(3) Downticket, Winsome Sears defeated Hala Ayala in the race for lieutenant governor. I watched Ayala at a McAuliffe rally in Dumfries and she was impressive, but it seemed that Democrats kept her locked away while Sears, who might have been a little toxic to Youngkin (her campaign posters featured her, a former Marine, carrying an assault rifle) was campaigning downstate. That may have very well paid off for Youngkin, who did not campaign with her often. In Virginia, you don’t vote for the ticket, but the individual office. Of the three statewide Democratic candidates—for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general—Ayala’s loss is the most striking. Whether she lost due to political malfeasance or a lack of building her own brand, we may never know. She was the new blood for Democrats.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.