Joe Biden won Virginia by over 10 percentage points in 2020. So how did Republican Glenn Youngkin win the governorship one year later?

By Ethan Oppenheim

Many Americans were surprised when Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin beat former Democratic governor incumbent Terry McAuliffe in the state’s gubernatorial election on November 2nd. Former President Barack Obama won the state by over six points in 2008 and around four points in 2012, Hillary Clinton won the state by five points in 2016, and President Joe Biden won it by over 10 points just one year ago. While Virginia has never been overwhelmingly progressive, Mr. Youngkin is the first Republican to be elected to the governor’s seat since 2009. Despite this rare victory for the GOP, Americans should not be shocked.

It is safe to assert that President Joe Biden’s role as the face of the Democratic Party played a major role in the recent Republican victory. The first major indication of the sinking national environment for Democrats is Mr. Biden’s low approval rating. According to a poll conducted by USA Today and Suffolk University, it currently sits at a meager 38%, a near 20% drop since he took office less than a year ago. The continuous drop in approval signals a change in perspective among primarily independents and moderate voters within both parties. In order to understand why this trend is taking place, it is important to look at the primary issues driving this negative trend.

According to the labor department, prices have risen significantly over the past year in many key categories, including rent (2.9%), electricity (5.2%), restaurants (4.7%), hotels (18%), meats, poultry, fish, and eggs (10.5%), furniture (11.2%), TVs (11.2%), and most notably, gas (42.1%). Overall, the average retail gas price in the United States has risen from about $2.33 per gallon at the beginning of the year to now almost $3.5. This is over a dollar increase, and Americans are well aware of this significant change. 

Moreover, American citizens, especially the lower and middle class, are bearing the brunt of these rising prices due to the supply chain crisis and an unprecedented number of unfilled job openings, which currently stands at 10.1 million, greater than the number of unemployed Americans looking for work (8.4 million). According to a Quinnipiac University Poll conducted in early October, Biden’s approval on the economy sits at 39% compared to a 55% disapproval.

But perhaps worse than the economy is Mr. Biden’s greatest failure thus far – 

the botched withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August. After the administration coordinated pulling troops out of the country, the radical Islamic military and political group known as the Taliban quickly took power, leading to severe instability in the region. The group rolled back years of reforms related to democracy, women’s rights, and equality, prompting backlash against the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal. Thousands of Americans were also left behind in Afghanistan, leading to a rescue effort in which 13 US service members were killed. The Quinnipiac poll has Biden’s foreign policy approval at an abysmal 34% compared to a 58% disapproval.

Moreover, Biden’s recent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has also drawn criticism. When he was running for president last year, Mr. Biden promised to “shut down the virus,” which is a rather incoherent and implausible promise to make. However, after a rather optimistic vaccine rollout in the spring which led to a decline in coronavirus cases and deaths across the nation, a surge in cases over the summer as a result of the Delta variant brought this optimism to a halt. Despite attempts to curb the coronavirus surge with a series of unconstitutional vaccine mandates and other extremely regulatory protocols, Biden’s efforts proved ineffective in the end, leading Americans to question whether the president actually had a grasp over the pandemic or whether it was just another promise unkept.

As if it could not get much worse for the Biden Administration, there are, of course, Mr. Biden’s rather disappointing approval ratings regarding immigration (35% according to AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research), crime (38% according to ABC News/Washington Post), and climate change (42% according to Quinnipiac). 

These, along with Mr. Biden’s unwillingness to answer questions during press briefings, the countless instances of him losing track of thoughts or sounding completely incoherent, and his inability to successfully unify his party in congress all contributed to the increase in negative sentiments toward the president and the Democratic Party. And these sentiments are why Mr. Youngkin won in Virginia.

Governor-elect Youngkin campaigned on lowering taxes, especially the grocery and gas taxes, to counter rising prices as a result of inflation. He pledged to lower crime rates and defend law enforcement to make Virginia a safer place to live. He promised to “restore…high standards for schools and…students,” “invest in…teachers and schools,” and give parents a say in what is taught in Virginia public schools. His message was clear: “Better-paying jobs, the best schools, the safest communities, and a government that works for you.”

On the other hand, Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia from 2013-2017, seemed unable to campaign on anything other than his opposition to former President Trump and the related set of ideologies known as “Trumpism,” which he consistently accused his opponent of espousing. Had Democrats given McAuliffe actual policy positions and legislative achievements to sell to voters, it would have undoubtedly benefited his campaign by motivating greater turnout among Democrats, as well as allowing independents to sympathize more with the struggling Democratic Party. However, disagreements surrounding Mr. Biden’s Build Back Better proposal and infrastructure plan, key agenda items of his, have caused internal party divisions which plagued Congressional Democrats’ ability to deliver any major legislation before November 2nd. To voters, the ineptitude of the Democratic party made Biden and the Democrats appear incompetent and inefficient. Despite the eventual passing of a bipartisan infrastructure deal of approximately $1 trillion, it came about a week too late for Mr. McAuliffe.

Like some political commentators have consistently suggested, the election between Virginia’s two gubernatorial candidates was really a national election – a reflection of the choice between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump – both of whom are seen as the current leaders of their respective parties.

Therefore, Mr. Youngkin’s victory should come as no surprise. Rather, it is a direct reflection of Mr. Biden’s drop in support, and the strong Republican turnout was merely a rejection of his job as president. Before Mr. Biden’s spiraling decline in support started taking effect, Mr. McAuliffe maintained a near 8-point lead over his Republican opponent. If not for Mr. Biden’s lackluster handling of many key issues, it is more than likely that Mr. McAuliffe would have won a second term.

Mr. Biden’s disappointing presidency, congressional Democrats’ inefficiency, and Mr. McAuliffe’s awful appearance and campaign strategies all contributed to the results of the 2021 Virginia Gubernatorial Election. And to give credit where it is due, Glenn Youngkin and the Virginia GOP played their cards right and took advantage of each of the major flaws in the Democratic Party. If Democrats want to avoid another night like November 2, 2021, they have a lot of work to do before the 2022 midterms.

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