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Flickr-Glenn Youngkin, CC BY-SA 2.0

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Youngkin Won by Campaigning on Cultural Issues

There are a number of lessons for those of us on the real right—not the GOP establishment—to learn from Tuesday’s election in Virginia.

First, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory came not so much from bringing the races and parties together, as the usual suspects on Fox News declared, but rather because he won Republican counties in Southwestern Virginia and traditionally Republican suburbs by a larger margin than Trump. Youngkin also flipped some suburbs from blue to red and kept his losses down in Northern Virginia better than recent Republican candidates.

Youngkin, however, didn’t fare so well in minority and Democratic-heavy locales. He lost 87 percent of the black electorate, while Democratic Loudon and Fairfax counties gave his Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe almost two-thirds of their votes. For all the talk about Youngkin’s rapport with the suburban female vote, he lost that, too, albeit by a lower margin than Trump did in 2020.

Perhaps most importantly, he managed to keep the proper distance from former president Trump, by accepting his endorsement but not campaigning with him. This allowed Youngkin to benefit from the Trump association in heavily Republican counties, while not being hobbled by it in very blue Northern Virginia. McAuliffe, who like CNN, tried repeatedly to tie Youngkin to Trump, looked as if he were slapping at air each time he decried his opponent as a Trump stand-in. By the end of his campaign McAuliffe felt forced to admit that the “election in Virginia is not about Trump.”

Despite this mixed bag of hard facts, there are some positives we can take away from the Virginia election. First, Republicans picked up 54 percent of the Hispanic vote, continuing a trend seen in last year’s presidential race. The fact the winning candidate for the attorney general’s office, Jason S. Miyares, is a Cuban American and stressed his membership in the Hispanic community may have enhanced the view of the GOP as a Hispanic-friendly party in Virginia.

Second, although the victory of a black Jamaican woman and former Marine Winsome Sears as the new lieutenant governor did nothing to break the Democratic hold on the black vote, Sears did this country a service by defeating her opponent, Hala Ayala. In contrast to the outspokenly patriotic victor, Ayala ran as a paradigmatically leftist candidate, pushing the now predictable victim narrative about blacks and women. While Ayala complained that the new lieutenant governor was paying insufficient attention to the approved leftist victim hierarchy, Sears replied that she was a proud American who would serve all Virginians.

Sears also seems much more down to earth, having worked her way up the social ladder from very modest beginnings. This confirms the growing identification of victim narratives with the pampered rich and patriotism with an industrious working class. By the way, Sears’ remark in her victory speech that “I’ve been black all my life” may have been a response to her much lighter-skinned opponent’s claim to be the authorized black candidate. Since Ayala won 81 percent of the black vote, however, she may have been entitled to make that claim.

A final takeaway from the election concerns something that Youngkin did correctly from the perspective of the right: he ran largely on cultural issues. As my colleague Pedro Gonzalez noted, Youngkin also avoided the lazy habit of referring to his Democratic opponent as a “socialist.” Contrary to the ingrained habit of Republican politicians and GOP media boosters to call their opponents “big government” spenders with Marxist tendencies, Youngkin recognized that a cultural war has erupted.

Youngkin of course had a ready-made issue to run on, because of the battles in Virginia’s public schools over Critical Race Theory and LGBT indoctrination. He pounced on McAuliffe who, in a September debate stated, “I don’t think parents should tell schools what to teach.” Youngkin went all over the state defending the right of parents to have a major say over school curricula, particularly if the woke left wished to exclude them from the discussion.

The electoral benefits in Northern Virginia were not as impressive as one might have wished. Still, the 90 percent or better margins by which Youngkin won some Republican districts due to his firm stance on educational issues is a good sign for culture warriors. He also managed to do this without sounding insulting or abusive, unlike McAuliffe, who repeatedly defamed his opponent, while being joined in this enterprise by former President Barack Obama. Youngkin never lost the moral high ground in what the Democrats worked hard to brand as their crusade against a white nationalist misogynist. In a less blue state, one might have wished that a candidate fighting the left would have shown a sharper electoral edge in the end. But in a state like Virginia, where nobody who is not on the left has won a statewide office since 2009, Youngkin may have played it right.   

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.

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