• Liam Fitzpatrick

Youngkin Wins Big in Virginia; Murphy Barely Holds On In Jersey

On November 2, businessman Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) was elected Governor of Virginia against former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA). Meanwhile, incumbent Phil Murphy (D-NJ) narrowly fended off Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli (R-NJ) for New Jersey Governor. These two events mark a dramatic swing in American politics. Virginia has trended blue over the past few election cycles, and New Jersey has long been considered a Democratic stronghold of the mid-Atlantic region. Coming off the back of the most Democratic presidential votes in history, political strategists wonder what happened in these two crucial, highly populated states.

Photo Courtesy: Associated Press

How were these races so close?

After such a strong showing in the 2020 presidential election, why did Democrats perform so poorly in 2021? It is easy to see why Democratic strategists are in crisis. Losing the governorship in Virginia and being three points away from Republican leadership in New Jersey was unexpected, to say the least. Though it appears to be a pure political loss for Democrats, this shock had less to do with Democratic ineptitude than Republican strategic victory. In short, Democrats didn’t lose, per se- Republicans just won more.

In the 2021 election, governor-hopeful Glenn Youngkin secured 1,633,702 votes, outpacing McAuliffe’s collection of 1,597,721 votes. This difference of 66,000 votes might seem like a lot, but it’s a very slim margin of victory in reality. For some context, in the 2017 election, Democratic candidate Ralph Northam thoroughly trounced his Republican challenger with a comparatively measly 1.4 million votes. Even though McAuliffe gained an impressive 200,000 additional Democratic votes more than the previous election cycle, he could not match Republicans’ incredible growth. Glenn Youngkin added a whopping half a million more Republican voters than in 2017, increasing his vote total by over 40% from the previous cycle. Both Democrats and Republicans gained substantially more voters, but Republicans just happened to gain more. Most importantly, it proves that Virginians are ready and willing to express their political opinions, choosing efficacy over apathy.

In the 2021 New Jersey elections for Governor, Phil Murphy received 1,285,351 votes. The Republican challenger, Ciattarelli, only received 1,219,906 votes. Like Virginia, both major parties gained voters this election- Ciattarelli with about 320,000 new voters compared to Murphy’s 80,000. Though Ciattarelli failed to take down Murphy this time, if he had put together his 2021 campaign against Murphy’s 2017 gubernatorial run, he would have narrowly squeaked by with about a 16,000 vote lead. Jack Ciattarelli’s surplus, though not as big as Virginia, marks a noteworthy demographic shift in a historically blue state. Although he ended up losing, Ciattarelli is emblematic of a larger conservative political movement in New Jersey, spearheading an anomalous and meaningful change in Garden State politics.

The takeaway: Both Democrats and Republicans had respectable, large-scale gains in New Jersey and Virginia. Republicans just managed to turn out more voters, to the tune of 800,000 new people to add to the Republican arsenal. Democrats didn’t lose, but Republicans just won more.

Photo Courtesy: Steve Helber/Associated Press

Why did Democrats fail?

Even top political strategists are scratching their heads at these new developments. What went wrong with the Democratic candidates? Some theorists argue that certain positional issues (like critical race theory and slow re-openings of public schools) may have rallied non-voting populations previously to head to the polls. Yet, others blame President Biden’s recent drop in U.S. favorability as a broader rejection of the Democratic party. Even with these two theories, it is too early to tell precisely what is responsible for the Republicans’ victory.

The first positional issue, critical race theory, is a widely debated term with different meanings depending on the user’s political affiliation. Generally speaking, Democratic politicians view critical race theory as a reframing of history to highlight American injustice against racial minorities. In contrast, Republican politicians view critical race theory as an attempt to discredit American successes and destroy patriotism in public education. Thus, critical race theory is controversial, especially regarding its role in American public education.

Youngkin, in particular, was able to frame critical race theory as anti-American propaganda. In an interview with FOX News, he said that “Critical race theory has moved into our school system, and we have to remove it. It’s a political theory… it’s not an academic curriculum.” He argued that McAuliffe would wield executive power to impose critical race theory on all school boards, setting a mandatory curriculum of antiracism for all Virginia school districts. Because of this perceived loss in educational autonomy, suburban parents overwhelmingly voted Republican at a theorized 15-point increase in some suburbs. Voters believed Republican claims that Democrats would destroy educational sovereignty. Although more research is needed to determine whether suburban voters responded to critical race theory or other issues, early evidence suggests a statistically significant swing to the right among suburban voters.

Another political issue, the slow opening of New Jersey and Virginia high schools, may have soured many Virginians/New Jersians towards Democratic leadership and led to increased support for Republicans. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, each state’s governments forced schools to remain closed for extended periods. As a result, parents may have developed a disdain for Democratic leadership in schools, especially regarding asynchronous learning and stay-at-home mandates during this period. When compared to Florida’s speedy (if risky) school reopening policy, parents might resent Democratic leadership and be compelled to vote Republican.

General disapproval of Joe Biden’s presidency may have also contributed to the strong Republican wave in Virginia and New Jersey. At the time of publication, Joe Biden’s approval rating is a dismal 38%, with many voters disapproving of the Biden administration’s unfulfilled promises, failures in the Middle East, and slow economic recovery. Additionally, American voters generally respond to a liberal White House by electing a conservative state government and vice versa, so the “thermostatic theory of politics,” or the idea that as a country gets more liberal/conservative voters tend to swing back towards centrism, may have played a significant role in Republican support. Americans seeking a change in the political landscape may not have given Democrats a second chance to prove themselves.

Although these are possible reasons for the Democrats’ slip in control over Virginia and New Jersey, it is still far too early to determine whether or not these reasons caused the hundreds of thousands of votes for Republican candidates. So instead, these are just the most likely answers to a highly improbable, extremely powerful Republican gubernatorial showing.

Why did Republicans succeed?

Aside from social factors pushing voters away from Democrats, the attractiveness of candidates like Ciattarelli and Youngkin may have pulled voters toward the Republican party. In addition, their controlled demeanor, personal charisma, and ability to avoid divisive political squabbles within the Republican party may have enticed additional voters.

At first glance, Glenn Youngkin embodies the traditional Republican candidate. A family man with Christian values and capitalist successes, Youngkin may have been idolized by potential voters. He was born into a pedigree of success, enrolling in elite private high schools and colleges en route to a successful and lucrative business career as a CEO. He appealed to parents’ and taxpayers’ concerns for apolitical education, levying his personal stake in Virginia curriculum as a parent to emphasize his anger towards Democratic COVID-19 restrictions and critical race theory. Youngkin also notably played both sides of the Trump coin, appealing to his more reactionary base when necessary while maintaining a reasonable distance to bring in more moderate Republicans.

Former Governor McAuliffe had trouble defending against Youngkin’s powerful attacks on the declining quality of Virginia schools. Between his own various faux pas surrounding the Northam blackface controversy and inadequate response to Youngkin’s educational attacks, Youngkin’s magnetism as a candidate was assured from the start.

Jack Ciattarelli was similarly able to court Trump voters while also appealing to New Jersey’s more apolitical residents. As the grandchild of Italian immigrants and a father himself, he conveyed his hardworking, “American dream” persona to the New Jersey public. After winning a seat in the New Jersey State Legislature, Ciattarelli developed a name for himself in politics, cementing him as a Republican powerhouse in a sea of Democratic congresspersons. Thus, Ciattarelli balanced the concerns of first-time voters, loyal conservatives, and Trumpian Republicans well.

Additionally, because New Jersey’s Democratic allegiance has been almost guaranteed the past few decades, Ciattarelli entered the race as a massive underdog. That chip on his shoulder may have led to his underestimation by Democratic political campaign strategists (Murphy and Ciattarelli were dead even in spending despite a massive Democratic advantage in the state). Finally, although he did not win the 2021 election, he represents a larger conservative movement in traditionally blue New Jersey.

Both Youngkin and Ciattarelli deftly balanced support from apolitical suburban voters, avowed Trumpists, and everyone in between. Although the cause of their success is debatable, their impact on American politics will have far-reaching consequences.

What does this mean for the future of American politics?

For starters, political strategists need to ensure this isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan freak success for Republicans. If the pattern of increased Republican voter turnout continues, then-campaign staffers and political candidates may want to retool their campaign strategies.

Democratic candidates may need to re-evaluate their campaign strategy to account for increased conservative public sentiment. It is likely that if a conservative wave impacted Virginia and New Jersey, other states in the future could carry the same surge of Republican voters. Should Democratic candidates revert to a more fiscally palatable-to-conservatives, moderate policy handbook? Should they stand their ground and throw their energy behind progressive policies that this new electorate does not support? Many questions remain unanswered for Democratic staffers and politicians ahead of the 2022 elections.

Whether or not this swing results in a permanent change in American politics, be sure to vote in the upcoming elections. Every vote counts and something as insignificant as a single vote for an underdog candidate can have massive, unexpected consequences when snowballed.