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So, what color is Virginia now?

Voting patterns, candidates, national environment all matter

Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe for the Virginia governorship earlier this month, but the commonwealth continues to lean toward the Democrats in federal statewide races, Rothenberg writes.
Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe for the Virginia governorship earlier this month, but the commonwealth continues to lean toward the Democrats in federal statewide races, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — Republicans swept the three statewide races in Virginia two weeks ago, including the governorship. They also won a majority in the commonwealth’s House of Delegates. 

Does that mean that Virginia is once again competitive, more like the toss-up states of Wisconsin or Arizona than the reliably Democratic Connecticut or even Democratic-leaning Minnesota?

Not from where I sit.

Democratic presidential nominees have carried Virginia the last four elections, while Democrats have won the last six Senate races there. In statewide federal races, the Old Dominion leans at least strongly toward Democrats.

State races are more competitive, as they are in most states, even in those where one party has a solid advantage in federal contests. You wouldn’t say that Kansas was “purple” just because Democrats have won the governorship in three in the last five elections, would you? And you wouldn’t call Massachusetts “red” because Republicans have won six of the last eight elections for governor there.

National dynamics have impacted Virginia’s gubernatorial contests, even though Virginia’s fundamental partisanship is clear.

With Democrat Barack Obama in the White House, Democrat Terry McAuliffe squeezed out a narrow 48 percent to 45 percent win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in 2013. Four years later, with Republican Donald Trump in the White House, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by a much more comfortable 54 percent to 45 percent.

This year, GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin squeezed out a narrow 2-point victory over McAuliffe largely because of a strong Republican turnout (particularly in rural areas) and a weaker Democratic showing in the suburbs than Joe Biden’s performance a year earlier.

This year, McAuliffe won almost 2 out of every 3 voters in populous Fairfax County, but Biden won over 70 percent of them in 2020. More importantly, the total turnout in the county was down dramatically from 2020 to 2021, which means McAuliffe’s margin was down in the county.

McAuliffe drew 286,316 votes in Fairfax County compared to Youngkin’s 152,110 voters, for a Democratic margin of 134,206 votes. But a year earlier, Biden had carried Virginia’s largest county with 419,943 votes to Trump’s 168,401 votes, a massive margin of 251,542 votes for the Democrat.

The same trend held true for the commonwealth’s second most populous county, Prince William, and for its fourth largest, Loudoun (the fastest-growing county in the commonwealth). 

And McAuliffe did lose some large counties that Biden had carried — Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Chesterfield (in the Richmond suburbs).

Virginia remains a blue state because, all things being equal, in statewide federal races, the Democratic nominee starts off with a clear advantage.

That doesn’t mean that a Republican can’t win the governorship or the attorney general’s race — or even a Senate race, if circumstances are unusual enough and the Democrats have a weak Senate or presidential nominee.

Republicans lost a Senate race in Indiana in 2012 when musings on abortion by their nominee, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, were so offensive that state voters elected Democrat Joe Donnelly. And Massachusetts Republican Scott P. Brown won a special election in 2010, when voters were unhappy with Obama’s performance in office, especially amid the ongoing debate on overhauling the health care system.

But Donnelly’s and Brown’s wins didn’t automatically change the color of their states. The outcomes were aberrations that followed from campaign events or broader national dynamics.

Of course, if Biden is running for reelection in 2024 and the economy is bad, even a blue state here or there might go Republican. Much would depend on the quality of the Republican nominee and how he or she would perform in the Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs, as well as in southeast Virginia (Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake).

No, Virginia is not as blue as Illinois or California. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a Democratic state.