Virginia governor’s race? Not at all surprised…

7 minute read

November 3, 2021, 4:17 PM

On the evening of November 3, I, like so many others, checked in on the various news websites to learn that Republican Glenn Youngkin had defeated Democrat and former governor Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia gubernatorial election.  I saw this result, and I was like… meh.  The pundits all said it would be close, and the results seem to bear that out, with Youngkin’s winning with 50.9%, McAuliffe’s coming in with 48.4%, with Princess Blanding, who was running on a “Liberation” ticket, taking the remaining 0.7%.  In any event, it seems like Youngkin did his homework and pulled it out.  It seemed like he had the better campaign overall, while McAuliffe tended to run on, “Hey, remember me?  I’m not Donald Trump.  I was also your governor back in 2014, and I’d love to have another go at it!”  In other words, while McAuliffe may have done his homework in 2013 and come out on top, the same can’t really be said for 2021.  I also did quite a bit of traveling through various areas of Virginia during the last few months of the campaign, and I saw way more campaign signs for Youngkin in my travels than I did McAuliffe signs, to the point where seeing a McAuliffe sign in my travels was noteworthy.

Terry McAuliffe’s win in 2013 was unusual because it broke the pattern of Virginia’s voting opposite of the president’s party.  Virginia, along with New Jersey, votes for its governor in what is called an “off-year election“, the year after the presidential election.  Since Barack Obama had been reelected president in 2012, by the usual Virginia pattern, Republican Ken Cuccinelli should have won.  I would suggest that people just didn’t want to vote for someone like Cuccinelli, because based on the public statements that I’d heard him make as attorney general, I had long come to the conclusion that he was nuts.

In any case, the pattern is well-established.  Looking through the list of governors of Virginia, the trend of voting opposite the president has been the case since 1977, when Republican John Dalton was elected governor while Democrat Jimmy Carter was in the White House.  That followed two other Republican governors that were elected following Nixon victories in the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections, which followed 80 straight years of Democratic control of the governor’s office.  Following Dalton’s tenure, there were three more Democratic governors, which corresponded with the Reagan and Bush presidencies.  Then there were two more Republicans that corresponded with the Clinton presidency, and then two more Democrats that corresponded with the George W. Bush presidency.  The pattern then continued in 2009 with a Republican for Obama’s first term, and then McAuliffe broke the pattern in 2013 during Obama’s second term.  After that, the governorship fell right back into the pattern, with a Democrat’s being elected in 2017 while Republican Donald Trump was in the White House.  And now the pattern continues, with a Democratic president in Joe Biden, and a Republican governor’s being elected in Virginia.

So if you’re keeping track, the trend has held for eleven out of the last twelve Virginia gubernatorial elections, going back 44 years.

This is why it always amuses me whenever the mass media makes a big deal out of the Virginia gubernatorial election, and tries to draw conclusions about national politics based on it.  Virginia’s gubernatorial elections are quite predictable.  Look at what party holds the White House, and then you can reasonably predict that Virginia will vote the opposite.  I remember that the media made a big deal about the 2001 election’s being something of a referendum on then-president George W. Bush’s performance in office, coming just under ten months into his term.  A Democrat’s being elected in Virginia was supposed to be doom and gloom for the Republicans because Virginia is such an important bellwether for the performance of national politics and blah blah blah blah blah, whatever.  In the end, Democrat Mark Warner won by a comfortable margin, which fit the pattern that Virginia had been following for more than two decades at that point, voting opposite of the president’s party for governor.  Then the following year, Republicans made gains in both houses of Congress (which itself is unusual, because the president’s party typically loses seats in the midterms), and in 2004, Bush was reelected, and Republicans made even more gains in both houses of Congress.  In Virginia specifically, the Republicans gained a seat in 2002 due to a sitting congressman’s changing parties, and the state went Republican in the 2004 presidential election.  So much for that failing grade that Virginia allegedly gave Bush and the GOP.  But then Virginia elected another Democrat for governor in 2005 with Tim Kaine, with Bush in office for a second term as president, i.e. it fit the pattern.

The problem with this sort of take is that it assumes that all politics is national, and that national issues are the only thing that people are concerned about when candidates run for office, completely ignoring any local issues that don’t have national relevance that may play an important role in the campaign.  I suppose that for the media, which runs the same programming nationwide, this is quite convenient, because it allows them to tie coverage of a state election to something that is at least somewhat relevant to their entire viewing audience.  Without that, there’s nothing that would make a person in Minnesota all that concerned about what’s going on in a state election in Virginia.  Though it almost makes it seem like a novel concept that the issues in a state or local election would be different than ones that are hashed out in national politics, and that different jurisdictions have different issues that are unique to them.  But in any case, when you have a long and fairly predictable pattern like that, it makes drawing national implications from a state election a bit disingenuous at best.  Virginia did exactly what it has done in most of the other elections, and voted opposite of the president’s party.

That sort of pattern of voting opposite of the president’s party is what makes McAuliffe’s 2013 win against Cuccinelli so notable, because it broke the pattern.  It really left a lot of people, including myself, wondering whether this was a shift in Virginia’s politics, with a Democrat in the White House and a Democrat’s subsequently being elected to the governorship.  I remember when Ralph Northam was elected in 2017 to succeed McAuliffe, that people were so excited that the Democrats won in Virginia once again.  I was less impressed by Northam’s win than I was with McAuliffe’s win, specifically because while McAuliffe’s win in 2013 broke the pattern, Northam’s win in 2017 fell right back into the pattern, and so I was like, “Oh, Virginia’s back to its usual thing.”  Similarly, if McAuliffe had won yesterday, that would have been just as notable as his 2013 victory was because it would have broken the pattern once again (it also would have been only the second time that a Virginia governor served a second term), and might have signaled a sea change in Virginia politics, especially after Virginia had gone Democratic in the last four presidential elections (and it was placed in the Democratic column very early in 2020 without much discussion), and that Democrats had swept the general assembly in 2019.  With McAuliffe’s loss in 2021, the pattern is maintained.  The loss makes the election less notable than it would have been if he had won, because it fit the pattern.  Virginia has shown that it’s a pretty predictable state, at least as far as gubernatorial elections go, and McAuliffe’s 2013 win has now been cemented as a blip rather than as the beginning of a sea change.

However, I do wonder how things might go if Virginia actually allowed governors to serve consecutive terms like every other state does.  My understanding is that while not allowing governors to serve consecutive terms was once more common, Virginia is now the lone holdout in not allowing this.  A Virginia governor is out after four years regardless of how they perform in office, and there is a whole new crop of fresh faces for the next election cycle.  It makes the governorship of Virginia into a job that you hold solely to get experience in order to get a better job, since it’s limited to a single term.  Good examples of this are Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who both used the governorship as a way to raise their profiles and get some experience under their belt, and then they each subsequently ran for and won seats in the US Senate.  Mark Warner exemplifies this in particular, because he had run for Senate with no previous government experience in 1996, and lost to incumbent Senator John Warner (no relation).  Mark Warner then ran for governor in 2001 and won, and then after serving four years as governor, he ran for the same Senate seat again in 2008 after John Warner had announced his retirement, and he won.  He’s been in that seat ever since.  Similarly, Tim Kaine was governor from 2006 to 2010, and then ran for Senate and won after incumbent Jim Webb declined to run for reelection.  McAuliffe was unusual for taking a second go at the governorship rather than getting a better job after leaving office.  I was willing to forgive him for that, though, because there was really nowhere else for him to go.  He had declined to seek a position in the Biden administration (which I think would have probably been a good place for him), and the Senate would not be up for election again until 2024, when Kaine’s seat will be up again.  I also feel that his seeking a seat in Congress would be a step down from the governorship, because it’s district-based rather than statewide in scope.  I wonder whether McAuliffe would have won if he had been able to run for reelection as a sitting governor, rather than being required to sit out four years before going back.  I’ll bet he would have won, as my recollection is that he was a relatively popular governor while in office, and probably would have benefitted greatly from running on his own record.  After having sat out for four years as required in the state constitution, his record in office became less relevant, as a lot of things had happened and a lot of things had changed in those four years, and what was relevant back then isn’t necessarily relevant anymore.  In other words, he may have been the right person for the job in 2013, but that didn’t mean that he was still the right person for the job in 2021.

All in all, I suppose that in so many ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Sure, there are some blips along the way, but the pattern still, for the most part, holds.