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Virginia Results: Giving Up on Rural America Is Proving a Nightmare for Democrats

Margins matter.
November 3, 2021
Virginia Results: Giving Up on Rural America Is Proving a Nightmare for Democrats
Glenn Youngkin walks to thank police officers who worked at his campaign event at the Manassas Park Community Center on October 30, 2021 in Manassas, Virginia. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

About a year ago I wrote about the big “trade” that had taken place in our politics. Democrats were picking up former Republican “red dogs” who live in the suburbs. Republicans were getting formerly working-class union types who live in the exurbs and rural America.

These shifts had been happening slowly for a long time but they were supercharged when Donald Trump came on the scene, energizing the working-class whites and horrifying suburban moms—and by 2020, their husbands as well. This change seemed to solidify the realignment setting up a divided country for political trench warfare in the years ahead.

Fast-forward to the first major state-wide election since the former guy was dispatched to a South Florida retirement as an investor in social media Potemkin villages and what we found should be extremely alarming for Democrats. In Tuesday’s results coming out the races in Virginia and New Jersey, many of the suburban red dogs and independents who had been powering the blue wave backslid towards the Republicans, while the rural whites continued their march rightward.

In the next few days, barrels of ink will be spilled writing about what happened in the burbs and the merits of the CRT wars, but for present purposes, here’s the main takeaway: Republicans actually came up with a plan to eat into the Democrats’ new coalition and that plan worked. They didn’t throw up their hands and decide the burbs were lost forever. They keyed in on an issue where the Democrats were out of step with the views of some of their voters and won on it. That’s Politics 101.

Meanwhile the Democrats don’t even seem to be trying to do the reverse—to chip away at the GOP hold on working-class whites—despite the fact that there are plenty of potential opportunities to wedge them.

One way we know it’s possible is that Republicans managed to wedge themselves against their own voters in Georgia just ten months ago, depressing their own turnout thanks to Trump’s failed coup attempt. While the McAuliffe campaign sure put a lot of effort into making Youngkin out to be a Trump clone in Northern Virginia, there didn’t seem to be any effort to replicate the Georgia runoff by convincing rural MAGA voters that Youngkin wouldn’t fight hard enough for Trump or the fraudits or against the people behind the pandemic or whatever else is riling up the base these days. Do these voters really think that when the 2024 election needs to be stolen that Willard Glenn Youngkin is the man they want with the pen? No way! But this type of messaging was absent from the campaign.

Or if that model isn’t one that appealed to Democrats, why not try to replicate what Obama did to “vulture” capitalist Mitt Romney in 2012?

Are you telling me that Democrats couldn’t come up with any plan that would have depressed support for the co-CEO of a private equity company? Glenn Youngkin is straight out of out-of-touch-elite central casting. The guy looks like he finished watching his kids’ Duke lacrosse match and then got on a private jet to Mechanicsburg to tell the factory owner that the suits were shutting things down. I’m not an oppo research man anymore, but I find it hard to believe that the Carlyle Group didn’t provide for some fruitful opportunities here. A two-second google search of “Carlyle Group controversy” brings up accusations of running nursing homes that neglected the elderly and bankrupting a company that put food on the shelves at grocery stores. Democrats couldn’t use any of this private-equity baggage to convince the voters who are taking horse dewormers to stick it to Big Pharma that this guy wasn’t on their side? Really?

Or for the more earnest among us, who may feel a little icky about the dark arts of politics, maybe Democrats could have considered finding a regionally relevant populist economic issue for McAuliffe to champion that might get Youngkin crossways with workers?

Were any of these tactics going to help Terry McAuliffe carry rural Virginia? No, but even a slight improvement in margins can make a big difference in aggregate. Let’s just take a look at a few counties:

Pittsylvania County is in Southside Virginia just north of Danville. I lived there for a couple of months in 2005 helping out with the Jerry Kilgore for Governor race. Kilgore won the county by 3,900 votes in a race we lost by 5 points. Fast forward to 2013 and Ken Cuccinelli beat McAuliffe there by 6,200 votes. In 2017, Ed Gillespie beat Ralph Northam there by 7,900 votes.

With 97% of the precincts reporting in Glenn Youngkin is winning Pittsylvania County by 13,200 votes. That’s 5,000 more votes than Gillespie, the 2017 candidate, banked in just that one small county.

The story is the same throughout the rural part of the state. Here are a few other examples, with the margins rounded to nearest hundred:

  • Wythe County in Southwest Virginia:
    Gillespie +4,200, Youngkin +7,400 (93% of precincts reporting)
  • Rockingham County in the Shenandoah Valley:
    Gillespie +10,800; Youngkin +16,200 (91% reporting)
  • Augusta County also in the Shenandoah, including Staunton:
    Gillespie +11,200; Youngkin +18,900 (96% reporting)
  • Lee County in the far western corner of the state, sandwiched by Tennessee and Kentucky:
    Gillespie +4,000; Youngkin +5,500 (95% reporting)

These margins all add up. So while it’s true that in a place like Virginia running up Assad-like numbers in Southside isn’t enough on its own, those tallies can be decisive when combined with the shifts we saw in Loudoun (which went for the Democrat 59-39 in 2017 but this year appears to have gone for McAuliffe by only 55-44) and Virginia Beach (which the Democrat won 52-47 in 2017 but McAuliffe appears to have lost 45-54 this year).

Yet for some reason Republicans are fighting on both fronts while the Democrats have just thrown in the towel in huge swaths of the state.

Reversing the trend in rural America to such a degree that some of these communities become swing territory again is a pipe dream. The working-class trend away from liberal parties both pre-dated Trump and is happening in democracies all around the world.

But that doesn’t mean that for the Democrats the right answer is to hope there will be some kind of natural reversion when Trump is off the ballot. Or to just give up and not worry whether the Republicans win the boonies by 45 points or 60 points.

Because if we end up with more close elections in 2022 and 2024, that shift might make all the difference.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.