Republicans make major gains in Virginia elections

Glenn Youngkin and other down-ballot Republicans defied Virginia’s leftward trend Nov. 2, declaring victory in their competitive races.


Youngkin will be Virginia’s first Republican governor in eight years. He, Sears and Miyares are the first Republicans elected to statewide office since 2014. Photo by Shauna Muckle, ’24

Shauna Muckle

Virginia Republican candidates cinched key wins in Tuesday’s elections, delivering them control of all three statewide elected offices and the House of Delegates.

Major outlets called the governor’s race for Republican Glenn Youngkin shortly after midnight on Nov. 3. The latest numbers from the Virginia Department of Election show Youngkin leading his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, by over two percentage points, 50.7% to 48.5%.

Youngkin will be the state’s first Republican governor since Gov. Robert McDonnell left office in 2014.

Winsome Sears, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and Jason Miyares, the Republican attorney general candidate, won their races by similar margins.

In addition to the statewide victories, Republicans officially won control of the Virginia House of Delegates, the lower chamber in the General Assembly, on Saturday. They flipped six seats to achieve a 51-49 majority.

Local Republicans credited Youngkin’s win to his campaign’s turnout-driving strategies and consistent messaging.

“His campaign did all the right things,” said Doug Smith, chairman of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee. “Certainly in my time working in politics, it’s probably one of the best-run campaigns I’ve ever seen.”

In particular, Smith noted Youngkin’s commitment to reaching every corner of the state, urban and rural, and the attention he maintained toward rural areas.

“He travelled to about every nook and cranny of Virginia,” Smith said. “He repeatedly visited rural areas. [Youngkin’s campaign] knew they had to get every potential supporter to come out and vote, and that indeed happened.”

That rural focus, Smith said, led to higher-than-expected turnout for Republican candidates in Rockbridge County that beat turnout for Republican candidates in the 2020 elections.

“People came out of the woodwork for this,” Smith said. “I think every Republican Party supporter knew that Virginia was at stake.”

Youngkin’s campaign was also well organized, Smith said, communicating consistently with local party units in an effort to maximize volunteer participation before and during Election Day.

Beyond campaign strategies alone, members of College Republicans at Washington and Lee said that Youngkin also chose a winning message, pinpointing voter discontent on education, lagging job growth and higher taxes and focusing on those issues to motivate turnout.

Youngkin’s ads often focused on his policy priorities, emphasizing his promises to eliminate Virginia’s sales tax on groceries, create jobs and improve education in Virginia.

Youngkin’s focus on the issues stands in contrast to McAuliffe’s campaign, which spent much of its advertising comparing Youngkin to Trump, Jack Fencl, ’22, said.

“McAuliffe really tried to tie Youngkin to Trump, and quite frankly voters didn’t care,” Fencl said. “They were concerned with things like education, slow economic growth, high taxes. Voters are going to reward whoever focuses on the issues they care about.”

Lilly Gillespie, ’22, said that Youngkin’s focus on schools “pushed him over the edge in Virginia.”

Youngkin campaigned on increasing the state’s education budget in order to boost teacher salaries, establish a robust charter school program and ensure schools remain open and in-person five days a week.

A flash point of Youngkin’s campaign was his opposition to Critical Race Theory in Virginia’s schools. The term has been criticized as being an inaccurate depiction of what race education actually looks like in Virginia.

Even if the issue was overblown at times on the right, Fencl said, it was right for Youngkin to focus on the issue and uplift parents’ concerns.

“If you think about the way K-12 education has evolved over the years, it’s clearly been influenced by these schools of thought, and parents noticed that,” Fencl said. “By just trying to write off those concerns, McAuliffe didn’t really engage with the voters he needed to capture to win.”

While Republicans praised Youngkin, local Democrats voiced recriminations against McAuliffe’s campaign.

Blake Ramsey, Vice-President of College Democrats at Washington and Lee, said Youngkin’s hold on education issues was part of McAuliffe’s undoing.

“[McAuliffe] ran a pitiful campaign,” Ramsey said. “He allowed Youngkin to get the social ethos of what was happening and control the terms of the debate. He allowed Youngkin to push a lot of farcical theories like Critical Race Theory in schools.”

Herbert Rubenstein, a representative of the Lexington and Rockbridge Area Democrats, said the results did not surprise him.

Rubenstein said that Democratic Party infrastructure in rural areas needs substantial improvement, starting with addressing the concerns of rural voters alongside urban ones. He said that local Democratic units need to transform their work into year-round operations.

“We need to be working 365 days a year,” Rubenstein said. “Right now in rural areas Democrats get organized a month before the election. It’s not enough.”

Ramsey and Rubenstein suggested that in the future, Democrats would benefit from picking younger, more energetic candidates.

“We need to get away from this smiling, polite Democrat, and get to a fiery, progressive candidate who’s willing to actually stand up for what they believe in and spread their agenda,” Ramsey said.

Rubenstein pointed to the fact that Youngkin and many successful Republican candidates have been inspiring newcomers. He said Virginia Democrats should follow Republicans’ lead.

“Who are the newcomers in the Democratic Party, and why are they not succeeding?” Rubenstein said. “Why don’t we have young, break-through Democratic candidates? Republicans have them all over the place. Why not us?”

Youngkin will now take office Jan. 15, 2022, where he will govern with a divided legislature. 

The Virginia Senate is currently split between 21 Democrats and 19 Republicans. Meanwhile, Republicans have reclaimed the House of Delegates by a one-vote margin.

The slim margins mean Youngkin will ultimately need some Democratic votes to pass his legislative priorities during his first year in office.

Virginia Republicans and Democrats will also face off again in races for the state Senate next year.