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The Climate Politics Almanac: Virginia's 2021 Elections, Part I
A Carlyle Group investor falls to a Carlyle Group executive in the race for governor
Governor: For most of this race, Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-2018, was seen as a favorite to become only the second person to serve two non-consecutive terms as Virginia’s governor. But Republican climate denier Glenn Youngkin ended up the winner.
Exhaustion with the pandemic, pessimism about the economy, controversy over school closures, a declining approval rating for President Biden, whipped-up frenzy over “critical race theory,” and voters’ growing disconnect with the Democratic Party ultimately proved too much for McAuliffe to overcome.
At roughly 52%, turnout was a record high for Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial elections,1 but young voters declined as a share of the electorate, from 20% in 2020 to 10% in 2021. White voters grew as a percentage of the electorate from 66% in 2020 to 74% in 2021. By improving on Trump’s performance among white women non-college graduates by roughly 18 points and among suburban voters by about 14 points, Youngkin was able to secure a 2.5-point victory.
Republicans limited their primary process to party activists rather than all voters. Delegates at the state party convention in May chose former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin as their nominee over venture capitalist Pete Snyder, far-right extremist state Sen. Amanda Chase, former House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, and several lesser-known candidates.
Youngkin started working at the Carlyle Group in 1995, and spent 25 years there, becoming co-CEO in 2017. With its “bankruptcy for profit” model, the private equity industry has become especially powerful in the fossil fuel sector— scooping up distressed oil, gas, and coal companies, keeping polluting assets afloat, and using bankruptcy to unload the costs of cleanup onto the public. During his tenure at Carlyle, Youngkin was hugely involved in Carlyle’s energy activity, most notably through a $20 billion buyout of the pipeline and coal terminal operator Kinder Morgan.
Youngkin left Carlyle in September 2020, and launched his campaign for governor shortly thereafter. On the campaign trail, he acknowledged the existence of climate change, but wouldn’t name the cause, saying he wasn’t interested in playing the “blame game.” Meanwhile, the Carlyle Group has become the largest private equity holder of fossil fuel assets, controlling 68 fossil fuel companies.
A longtime close ally of the Clinton family, McAuliffe had notable accomplishments as governor, but was still more well-known for his past as a DNC Chair and party finance operative, which famously extended to wrestling an alligator and stopping by a fundraiser on his way home from the hospital after the birth of one of his children.
McAuliffe had unified support from Virginia’s political establishment out of the gate, and easily won the Democratic primary with 62% of the vote, prevailing over three Black candidates: former Del. Jennifer Carroll-Foy, who had support from the Sunrise Movement and other progressive organizations; state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a former corporate lawyer who carried the Virginia Clean Economy Act; and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who lashed out angrily against numerous sexual assault allegations and pressed forward with his gubernatorial bid.
With the stage set for a showdown between a private equity hundred-millionaire and one of the most legendary fundraisers in American politics, the general election got off to an early start over the summer, with Youngkin pouring millions from his personal fortune into the race. Youngkin’s ads pummeled McAuliffe on the issue of “rising crime” in Virginia, suggesting that “Virginia won’t be safe with four more years of Terry McAuliffe.” Youngkin also promised to fire the entire state parole board. McAuliffe fired back by emphasizing national issues, hoping to solidify Virginia’s status as a blue state that supported President Biden, with ads calling Youngkin a “Trump loyalist.”
After its founding by a former Carter administration staffer in the late 1980s, the Carlyle Group fueled its fast rise to the top of the private equity industry in part by forging relationships with politically connected individuals during the Clinton era. Accordingly, Youngkin defended attacks on his predatory business record during the campaign by pointing out that McAuliffe— the quintessential Clinton-era politically connected financier— had invested with Carlyle in the past. McAuliffe— whose investments at one point included over $250,000 in Carlyle’s oil and gas portfolio—had only a feeble response.
In two years of trifecta control over state government, Virginia Democrats’ signature accomplishments included a minimum wage increase, expansion of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, and marijuana legalization. They also enacted a “carbon-free by 2050” goal known as the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), which will require Virginia to end reliance on coal power by 2024 but largely keeping the state’s big utilities' profit structures untouched. (Youngkin has said he would have vetoed the VCEA.)
All of this would seem to be a platform ready-made for the popularist recommendation that Democrats run on “workers, wages, and weed,” except that McAuliffe didn’t really focus his campaign message on these concrete Democratic policy achievements.
Instead, McAuliffe and his allies invested heavily in the strategy of tying Youngkin to Trump, including with mailers funded by the Democratic Party promoting Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin. National press has credited Youngkin with keeping Trump at an “arm’s length” focusing on kitchen-table issues like taxes and education while cultivating an image as a reasonable, fleece-wearing businessman. But Youngkin also managed to stoke the Republican base by indulging Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, appearing on Seb Gorka’s far-right podcast, and saying that he would support Trump if he is the 2024 Republican nominee.
Although McAuliffe’s efforts to turn Trump into a liability for Youngkin failed, DCCC Chair Sean Patrick Maloney defended the strategy and previewed a continued electoral effort to dwell on 2020, saying:
“Glenn Youngkin got away with being all things to all people, and we can’t let them do that. The House Republicans have cast their lot with the toxic Trump agenda of lying about the election, of minimizing the pandemic, of ignoring the attack on the Capitol.”
With the national environment established as an important backdrop in the race, a debate has also taken place over what impact the fractious and lengthy infrastructure negotiations in Congress had on the race. Sen. Mark Warner blamed McAuliffe’s loss on progressives in Congress for holding up a bipartisan infrastructure deal agreed on in the Senate months earlier, a gripe echoed by McAuliffe himself in the final gubernatorial debate.
McAuliffe also sought to capitalize on polls showing that most Virginia voters favor abortion rights, running extensive ads that emphasized Youngkin’s opposition to abortion. In particular, McAuliffe highlighted a caught-on-tape moment when Youngkin told supporters that he could start “going on offense” against abortion rights only after he became governor. Here also McAuliffe’s strategy seemed to fall short: exit polls showed that abortion was the most important issue for only 8% of voters, and a majority of those voters supported Youngkin.
In the end, education was the issue that loomed largest over the final stage of the campaign. As Zach Carter noted:
“Fairfax County, the largest county in the state, has lost more than 10,000 students since the start of the pandemic—a decline of about 5 percent. In neighboring Arlington County, the dropoff is 3.9 percent; in Loudoun County, it’s 3.4 percent. Those may look like modest declines, but they should not be happening in prosperous counties where the population is growing quickly. The public schools in all three counties have a reputation for quality. People move there for the schools.”
While dissatisfaction with school closures and pandemic fatigue seemed to be the underlying animating issue, Youngkin sought to escalate cultural and racial tensions surrounding it. He pledged to ban the supposed teaching of critical race theory in schools, ran TV ads featuring a parent who had fought to prevent the teaching of Toni Morrison’s Beloved to high school seniors, and seized on a moment during a gubernatorial debate when McAuliffe said, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision.”
McAuliffe’s more specific plans to increase education spending were no match for Youngkin’s rhetoric. Though much has been made of McAuliffe’s underperformance in Loudon and Fairfax Counties, he still won both counties by wide margins and could have made up for slight turnout dips with improvements elsewhere. More dramatic swings occurred in Virginia Beach, which Youngkin won, flipping it by a 13-point margin compared with Biden’s victory in 2020, and Chesterfield County south of Richmond, which Youngkin flipped by 11 points compared with 2020.
The lost ground in these suburban regions was especially consequential because they overlapped with numerous targeted House of Delegates districts, causing control of the chamber to change hands.
Although exhaustion with the pandemic and a base demoralized by Democratic in-fighting in Congress were framed as factors in the Republican victories, the 2021 results cannot be attributed to low turnout in an otherwise safe blue state. Turnout was the highest ever for a gubernatorial race, and McAuliffe simply lost ground in suburban counties that were key to Biden’s success in 2020, portending challenges in 2022 for vulnerable House Democrats such as Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Elaine Luria.
Tomorrow’s Almanac entry will review Virginia’s other statewide races and key legislative races.