Virginia Elects Republican Glenn Youngkin As Governor : The NPR Politics Podcast Youngkin defeated former governor Terry McAuliffe, and outperformed former president Donald Trump's 2020 margins in every county. In the deep-blue state of New Jersey, the governor's race remains too close to call.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Virginia Elects Republican Glenn Youngkin As Governor

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UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hello, NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: We're the Lightningrods (ph) from Durango, Colo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're taking our homemade camper boat down the mighty Mississippi, and we're officially halfway, having just passed Cairo, Ill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

12:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday, November 3.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Things may have changed. But hopefully, we'll be another day closer to New Orleans...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: ...and more ice cream.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KHALID: I love that.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Really cute.

KHALID: That's, like, one of those things you dream of doing - right? - going down the Mississippi River.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: You know, let's just hope that those parents have a lot of snacks.

KHALID: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And last night, elections were held across much of the country, including two key governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin won over Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, it was expected to be this decisive win for Democrats, but the race still remains too close to call. So let's focus first on Virginia. Obviously, big themes were education, schools, vaccine mandates. But wrapped up into all of this, it felt, was this focus on culture war issues.

MONTANARO: Well, I think that culture war issue you're talking about is wrapped up in education (laughter).

KHALID: Yes, exactly.

MONTANARO: I mean, I think that, you know, the way it was talked about as far as how children are taught about racism in schools - at school board meetings, you saw mostly white conservative parents, you know, dominating, you know, called this a racist dog whistle. And I think what you saw was Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, really run a clever race where, you know, he'd at one point go on Fox News and sound like he was using right-wing talking points. And then his ads for those who might not have seen his appearances on Fox News certainly seemed to show this softer side - a suburban, non-offensive dad wearing a sweater vest and, you know, donning a smile.

KHALID: So a bit of code switching there.

LIASSON: Racial dog whistles or racial culture war issues have been a feature of Republican campaigns for our entire lives, even Domenico and my entire lives...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...Long as they are, whether it was busing, affirmative action, and now it's all about how race is taught in schools.

MONTANARO: Southern strategy, yep.

LIASSON: Whether it's based on something real or not - but don't forget that also got wrapped up in the incredible frustration that parents feel about having their kids out of school for 18 months.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And we saw that actually really kind of play out in the election where, you know, in the exit polls, anyway, we were able to see overwhelmingly three-quarters of people who said that they feel that parents should have a lot of say in their kids' classrooms went for Youngkin. And that was just one of these major shifts overall when it came to parents, suburban voters all up and down the list.

KHALID: Domenico, I want to dive a little bit deeper into the numbers. Do you have a better sense of what exactly Youngkin's path to victory was?

MONTANARO: Yeah. Well, look; you know, this is a state that President Biden won in 2020 by 10 percentage points.

KHALID: Yeah.

MONTANARO: So certainly, Youngkin was going to have to do something pretty major to be able to make inroads. And he did. You know, there were - he made double-digit gains with women, with white women, white voters overall, suburban voters. He expanded with whites without college degrees, which are a real big piece of the Trump base - and with parents with children under 18 living at home.

KHALID: So to be clear, Domenico, he did better with white folks who do not have a college degree than even Donald Trump did in 2020.

MONTANARO: That's right. So he was able to make inroads in the suburbs and expand the margins in rural counties.

LIASSON: Yeah. And he figured out he's the model now for how to keep the Trump base fired up without looking too Trumpy to suburban voters. And this really was the lesson from 2020. Remember how bad Democrats did down ballot because voters make a distinction in their mind from - between Trump and a Republican congressional candidate? And they did it again. There were even voters interviewed who said, oh, Youngkin isn't like Trump; if he had have campaigned with Trump, I never would have voted for him.

KHALID: I mean, but to be fair to Youngkin, too, I mean, the man is very distinct from Donald Trump, right? He led the Carlyle Group, this private equity firm. Right? I mean, he's more akin to Mitt Romney. He's a private equity guy. He's extremely wealthy. Right? He's a business-minded Republican. And for some folks who were nostalgic for politics in a pre-Trump era, I feel like they looked at Youngkin and was like, this is our man - if they were sort of more independent suburban voters who wanted a return to an era of politics, you know, before Donald Trump was there.

MONTANARO: He still took Trump's endorsement, though.

LIASSON: Yep, he did.

MONTANARO: You know, as much as he wanted to keep him at bay with maybe a 30-foot pole and not have them come into the state to do a rally, as much as Democrats were trying to goad him into doing that, you know, he still took Trump's endorsement. And he was still running ads in the state saying things like, you know, the FBI is trying to silence parents - having to do with the Attorney General Merrick Garland wanting to work more closely with local governments because of bullying and intimidation that had been taking place at these school board meetings.

LIASSON: And threats of violence.

MONTANARO: Exactly.

LIASSON: And also, don't forget, he went on Sebastian Gorka's radio show. He did everything he needed to do to send a message to the MAGA base that he was happy with Trump's endorsement and he was with them on all these culture war issues. But he did it in a really nuanced way. Now the question is, in terms of this being a model for Republicans in next year's midterms, how many Republicans can be Glenn Youngkins?

MONTANARO: Well, they're certainly going to be coached to do so...

KHALID: Yes, yes, yes.

MONTANARO: ...Because they're all going to be handed the same bar that, you know, Youngkin was able to use to tightrope his way (laughter) across the state.

LIASSON: Yup, exactly.

KHALID: I know that we all want to interpret lessons from this Virginia race that help us understand what might happen in next year's congressional midterms, but I do feel like there are really unique elements to this race. I mean, one being that it's an off-year election. And so that just makes it really different. But also, the people running were were distinct in the sense that they generated really different levels of enthusiasm, right? Terry McAuliffe is this former governor. I, at his own campaign rally, met people in the crowd who were extremely lackluster about having him as their person to vote for. And on the flip side, like, Republicans were excited about Glenn Youngkin. And I just wonder if part of what is making this Virginia race so distinct were the two men running.

LIASSON: Well, except that the out party is always more energized in Virginia and in the off-years. Negative partisanship drives American politics, so you would expect to find the party out of power more enthusiastic. It's not just the candidates, although you're absolutely right. I think Glenn Youngkin ran simply a better campaign than Terry McAuliffe did. But don't forget one of the other - we always joke and say historical rules only work till they stop working.

KHALID: Exactly.

LIASSON: But one historical rule did not stop working in Virginia, which is that - except with one modern exception - Virginia governor's race always goes to the party not in the White House.

MONTANARO: Right. And there's a reason for that because, you know, the opponents of the president's party in the White House are able to, you know, register their frustration. This is one of their first opportunities to do that. But, you know, before we get too far down this lane of saying that there wasn't a lot of enthusiasm for McAuliffe, which, you know, in my reporting too I found people saying that they were having - they were facing a degree of political cynicism, a degree of apathy.

But at the same time, McAuliffe did get 200,000 more votes than Democratic incumbent Governor Ralph Northam got in 2017. So he was able to drive out a lot of voters, particularly college-educated voters in Northern Virginia. He wasn't able to get as high levels as he would have needed to with, let's say, African American voters, Latinos and Asian Americans, even though they voted at pretty wide margins for him. But he just wasn't able to match what Youngkin was able to do in firing up his base.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. There is a lot more to talk about, and I know we all have a lot more thoughts on this topic. And we will be back in a minute.

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KHALID: And we're back. So Democrats had a tough defeat in Virginia. It looks like the race in New Jersey is still incredibly close. And it feels like there has already begun this blame game among Democrats as to who's fault these losses are, whether it's moderates, progressives or somebody else.

LIASSON: Well, there's two possible ways that this could affect the Democratic Party in the short term. One is it gives them new urgency to pass the president's agenda because Terry McAuliffe said over and over again that he was really hoping that that infrastructure bill would have passed and he could have campaigned standing on the bridge that it would have repaired in Virginia. So do they get a fire under them and pass it, or do moderates get spooked and think that they shouldn't pass it because it'll be unpopular? I think it's actually going to increase the urgency to pass the president's agenda.

KHALID: And the thinking is that if they do pass these bills, it will help them next year in the midterms.

LIASSON: Well, let's put it this way - if they don't pass them, it's really going to hurt them.

MONTANARO: The thing I thought this morning when I saw that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said let's put back in the family medical leave piece of the legislation that had seemed to have been taken out after negotiations with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin - seeing that put back in the day after this happened told me that Speaker Pelosi doesn't see a majority in 2022 likely and that they need to get done as much as they possibly can get done now because they were already facing an uphill battle and unlikelihood of retaining the House.

KHALID: Oh, that's interesting, meaning if you want anything to get done, you have to do it in the next year.

MONTANARO: Yeah. If they don't get it now, think about how many years from now that would - you know, they might have this kind of majority again. These things don't come around very often.

KHALID: But do you all think that really delivering legislation wins you votes?

MONTANARO: No, I don't (laughter).

LIASSON: But not delivering will depress your base and lose you votes.

KHALID: I see. I see. Yeah.

LIASSON: In other words, it's guaranteed to hurt you if you don't do it. It's not guaranteed to help you if you do.

MONTANARO: I think the bigger debate that's going to take place here is how to run. You know, I think that already last night, I was starting to see kind of in the vein of what Asma was talking about that, you know, people didn't really like Terry McAuliffe all that much. He didn't inspire them - that, you know, progressives already saying, you got to have somebody who can fire up the base, who can really feel like they want to get behind someone like this. At the same time, you have moderates who are ringing the fire alarms, saying, look at what happened in New Jersey, not just Virginia. This is not a one-off thing. This was a double-digit shift away from Democrats.

You had, in Minneapolis, you know, police reform was voted down. You had in Buffalo, N.Y., the mayor, who was more of a mainline Democrat who had lost to a socialist in a primary, come back and win a write-in bid. So where is the energy among Democrats? Who are the majority of Democrats? Are they Twitter Democrats, or are they more mainstream Democrats? Are they progressive? Are they moderate? This is going to be, I think, the thing we're going to hear about over the next, you know, six to 10 months quite a bit.

LIASSON: There is no evidence that the progressive base stayed home in Virginia.

MONTANARO: Right.

LIASSON: And the other thing is the Democrats are the party that insists on being inspired. Republicans are the party that turn out every time. Democrats say, we need a Barack Obama to make our heart flutter.

KHALID: So I am curious what you all think about possibly other lessons that Democrats need to take from Virginia. I want to share a real quick story with you all. I was spending some time out in central Virginia last week, and I met this guy. His name is Thomas Leachman. He told me he's from this long line of Democrats. His family's been a Democratic family in the area for generations. And you know, he told me proudly he had voted for Barack Obama. He voted for Terry McAuliffe the first time he ran for governor. And he has since shifted away from Democrats. And I asked him, you know, like, why did you move away from this party of your dad and your grandpa?

THOMAS LEACHMAN: One of the things that really irks me is the rise of identity politics that has been used by the Democratic Party in Virginia over the past six-plus years. That is really what I think has really sent me more so than any other thing because I just - I'm so, so frustrated by everything being racist every single time.

KHALID: And I know we spent a lot of time talking about culture and kind of the winking that you might see from Republicans. But there is a sense amongst some voters that culture and race is being used extensively by Democrats, and they don't think that's convincing. And I'm really curious if we see a shift in some of that conversation from Democrats as they look to 2022.

LIASSON: If he doesn't like the identity politics on the left, what does he think about the identity politics on the right? Donald Trump was a master practitioner of white identity politics. And in American history, white identity politics has always won. There's no doubt that any kind of excess on the left, any kind of identity politics is going to get exaggerated and covered in a way that right-wing identity politics never will.

KHALID: All right. Well, we will leave it there for today. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you all, as always, for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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