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Virginia Is For Blunders

Osita Nwanevu
7 min read
Virginia Is For Blunders

Hey all,

There’ll be one more post this weekend. Let’s hop to this one.


I spent the late evening of my birthday this week parsing the results of Virginia’s governor’s race. And I’ve been thinking a good deal about McAuliffe’s loss since, not just as a pundit, but as a Virginian by birth –  I was born in Arlington and lived in Prince William County from 2000 until I left for college in Chicago in 2011. These, obviously, were the most formative years of my life. And it was in Virginia that I first got deeply engaged with politics  ⁠— I did grunt work for the Prince William County Democratic Party in high school and the summer after my freshman year in college. I think I took on those gigs to gauge my interest in working on campaigns or in Washington; my hatred of them encouraged me to consider political journalism instead.

If you lived in Northern Virginia in the 2000s, you didn’t really have to work in politics to feel as though you were at the center of American political life. I remember my parents ironing our mail for anthrax in late 2001. I remember the immigration protests of 2006 and Corey Stewart’s beta test of what we’d come to call Trumpism. And I’ll always remember the most exhilarating night of my life thus far ⁠—  the final rally of Obama’s 2008 campaign in Manassas, where I’d lived briefly as a child. I also remember being surprised on Election Day, in spite of the massive crowd I’d been a part of and their enthusiasm, that Obama had actually won Prince William County ⁠— the first Democrat to do so since 1964. It was a result that didn’t line up with Stewart's tenure at the top of county government or my experiences ⁠— I went to a fairly conservative Catholic church; you could glimpse Rush Limbaugh on bookshelves in the homes of my friends; and the non-relatives my family was closest to once gifted us with the entirety of the Left Behind series.

Of course, my anecdata notwithstanding, Obama’s victory was a long time coming. My family was itself evidence of how quickly Virginia’s suburbs were diversifying ⁠— a broad demographic shift that had already been boosting Democratic candidates in the region and statewide before Obama’s run. But there was more to it than that. Prince William County first surprised the state’s politicos in 2005, when Tim Kaine flipped it in his successful gubernatorial campaign. And his victory was attributed largely to suburban disgust for the national Republican Party and the Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore’s focus on divisive social issues. Here’s an article from the Washington Post not long after the election:

"I'd like to say [the election] is a bellwether of positive things to come for Democratic Party in western Prince William County," said Rick Coplen, chairman of the Prince William Democratic Committee. "The Republicans and Jerry Kilgore focused on illegal immigration, the death penalty, abortion and quite frankly, those are important issues but they're not as important to peoples' everyday lives as transportation, health care, education. Those are the things that matter most."
Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) said he agrees. The election returns from the western part of the county represent a broader trend that he expects will continue unless Republicans change their focus, he said.
"We are seeing a large influx of middle-class folks who are affluent and well-educated and are politically independent," Connaughton said. "Even though they may lean Republican or Democrat, they will vote for who they think is the best candidate. That means the party has to get back to its roots . . . focusing on issues such as transportation, education and public safety and the quality of life these people are expecting."

The next year, former Governor and incumbent Senator George Allen’s reelection bid was famously derailed by a viral clip ⁠of him accosting a Democratic campaign operative with a racial slur.

Republicans haven’t won a Senate election since, and Virginia’s come to seem like a reasonably solid blue state in presidential elections ⁠— in 2020, Biden won it by 10 points.

What’s happened in Northern Virginia seems akin to what’s happened in suburbs all over the country over the last decade or so ⁠— alienation with the national Republican Party and its cultural politics was costing the GOP well before Trump entered the scene. According to exit polls, 2016 was the third straight election in which Republicans failed to win a majority of the suburban vote. But Republican erosion in the suburbs never meant that suburbanites were becoming much more materially progressive ⁠— as wary as they might be of Republican extremism, few in Northern Virginia are clamoring for policies that might increase their taxes. Those preferences have led to bifurcation ⁠— more support for Democrats in Washington who don’t seem to accomplish very much beyond not being Republicans, and sustained support for moderate, non-alienating Republicans in state government, where they’re less likely to rock the boat tax or otherwise than Democrats would be.

This is really the best way to understand Youngkin’s win ⁠— it may have been an upset victory given Democratic successes in federal elections, but Youngkin’s also the second Republican governor the state’s elected since 2010. And the same pattern’s evident in states much bluer than Virginia is — New Jersey’s Phil Murphy very nearly lost reelection this week in a state Biden carried by nearly 16 points. Republican Larry Hogan has been governor of Maryland, a state Biden won by over 30 points, since 2015. In Massachusetts, another state Biden won by a similar margin, Republican governor Charlie Baker garnered a nearly 90 percent approval rating amongst Democrats last fall.

In short, the suburbanites Democrats won over under Trump are still happy to consider voting for moderate Republicans who look like Glenn Youngkin. And McAuliffe’s effort to paint Youngkin ⁠— the sweater vest-wearing CEO of the Carlyle Group, a Northern Virginian himself ⁠— as a Trumpist in disguised plainly failed to stop him from making gains in Northern Virginia. In Prince William County specifically, Youngkin beat Trump’s margin last year by 12 points. Critical Race Theory and school closures have been identified by many as culprits, but irrespective of what you want to believe the specific triggers were for the electorate, the key thing is that there are plenty of ostensibly Democratic or potentially-Democratic suburban voters in federal elections who, at baseline, actively want to vote moderate Republicans into state government.

And really, we have every reason to suspect many would be willing to support moderate Republicans federally if the GOP deigned to nominate them. No, Romney and McCain didn’t especially help the party’s fortunes in Virginia, but they were struggling to escape the impressions people were developing about the GOP as a whole. Now that Trump has been framed by Democrats and the press as a singular figure ⁠— the cancer within the Republican Party and one that might conceivably be excised ⁠— moderate Republicans can evidently make ground in suburbia just by not being Trump or seeming very much like him. In fact, Youngkin’s victory suggests that moderates might be able to do so while sustaining or improving upon Trump’s turnout rate and margins with white rural and exurban voters. Needless to say, the Democratic Party’s functionally doomed in the near term if that’s the case.

No one who matters is looking to the left and progressive pundits for remedies; if they were, I’d refer them to my piece in early 2020 about the GOP. The argument then, as now, was that Democrats won’t really strike a critical blow against the Republican Party unless they stop fixating solely on Trump and work to make voters feel more squeamish about supporting anyone with an R next to their name. Arguing that America needs a strong Republican Party for balance probably isn’t the best way to galvanize voters against Republican candidates. Then again, it’s not obvious that most Democratic leaders seriously want to ⁠— they genuinely believe in balance and bipartisanship as moderating constraints on progressive policymaking.

The other larger strategic question ⁠— one that concerns the left more than it does the current Democratic Party ⁠— is whether suburbanites can ever be wrangled into a left-wing coalition with less affluent working class voters. Personally, I think there’s probably an electoral path forward in the long run. The policy pitch would likely have to be a combination of debt financed social spending ⁠— taxing the rich only gets you so far, and I haven’t a clue how we’re ever going to substantially raise middle-class taxes again in this country ⁠— and mandates and regulations aimed at building workers’ rights and promoting worker ownership. The latter, as I’ve written, is a policy realm that could redistribute a significant amount of wealth and power to the working class without costing the federal government and its suburbanite taxpayers very much at all up front. It’s far from obvious that this pitch would succeed. But I can’t imagine any other coming close soon in Northern Virginia.

Reasons to Be Cheerful

The COVID pills are coming. From NPR:

Pfizer says that its COVID-19 pill reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 89%, in a clinical trial that tested the drug in adults with the disease who were also in high-risk health groups.
The oral medicine is called Paxlovid. Similar to Merck's new pill that was approved in the U.K. on Thursday, Pfizer said its drug showed good results when administered within five days of the first COVID-19 symptoms.
Based on the strength of the trial's results, Pfizer says it will stop enrolling people into more clinical trials for the pill and will instead send the results it has so far to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to seek emergency use authorization.
"These data suggest that our oral antiviral candidate, if approved or authorized by regulatory authorities, has the potential to save patients' lives, reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections, and eliminate up to nine out of ten hospitalizations," Pfizer CEO and chairman Albert Bourla said.

Good night.