RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — When Virginia Republicans nominated Glenn Youngkin as their candidate for governor, they wondered whether the first-time candidate could master a high-level political maneuver — appealing to educated suburbanites without dampening the enthusiasm of white, rural voters who came out in droves to vote for Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, it became clear just how well Youngkin pulled it off.
The former private equity executive became the first Republican candidate to win statewide since 2009, thanks to a campaign that rallied right-leaning voters both in the growing suburbs in the north and the shrinking towns of Appalachia. That turnout helped Youngkin chip away at parts of the Democrats' coalition and give Republicans hope for a 2022 comeback.
“There’s no doubt now that someone not named Trump can recreate the Trump coalition — and make gains among suburban voters,” said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican data analyst in Washington. “It means a lot of states are in play."
The performance could be a road map for GOP electoral dominance in next year's election, when Democrats’ control of the House and Senate is on the line. Republicans lost ground in educated suburbs across the country during Trump's tenure, while supercharging support in rural areas. After Trump left office, Democrats braced for the possibility the GOP could regain some support, but doubted it could continue to maintain such enormous rural margins.
Youngkin proved them wrong. In tiny, rural Lee County at the southwestern edge of Virginia, where Trump won 84% of the vote last year, Youngkin managed to improve that margins. He won Lee County with 87.6% of the vote.
On the opposite end of the state and the political spectrum, densely-populated Fairfax County was also a bright spot for Youngkin. Turnout in the county just across the Potomac River from Washington was sky-high for an off-year election, and Democrat Terry McAuliffe won with 65% of the vote. Yet Youngkin won 35% and improved on Trump's 70%-29% loss there last year.
“It wasn’t one or the other — he did both," said Tucker Martin, a longtime GOP consultant who has worked on several Virginia governor’s races. "And it’s been a while since we’ve seen a Republican able to do that in Virginia.”
McAuliffe, who was previously in office from 2014 to 2018, conceded Wednesday morning in a statement that congratulated Youngkin. While votes were still coming in, the Republican had a more than 2 percentage point lead.
A spokeswoman, Christina Freundlich, said the McAuliffe campaign “felt good” about its performance in blue-leaning areas, but that wasn’t enough to win. She pinned the outcome on headwinds from Washington, saying the national political environment led to rural areas “extremely energized in the face of the Biden presidency.”
Fifty-three percent of Virginia voters disapprove of Biden's job performance, while 47% approve, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.
Virginia, with its unusual off-year elections, has a long history of choosing governors from the party that does not occupy the White House, and Freundlich said the campaign had been expecting something of a pendulum swing.
“It just swung harder than we had expected,” she said.
Youngkin's campaign targeted a wide swath of Virginia's electorate, focusing on state and local issues. He steadfastly refused to disavow Trump but kept his distance from the ex-president on the stump. He seized on frustration with schools to connect with suburban voters beleaguered by pandemic closures. He aligned himself with conservative voters suspicious of racial justice and diversity curriculum in schools — sending what McAuliffe described as a “racist dog whistle.” For Virginians worried about inflation and a rising cost of living, he pitched an end to the state's grocery tax and other substantial tax cuts.
The result was micro-improvements with a broad set of groups — rather than a spike of support in just one demographic.
According to AP VoteCast, voters 45 and older split evenly between Trump and Biden last year. This time they broke for Youngkin, 55%-45%. Last year, 61% of suburbanites in Virginia backed Biden and 37% backed Trump. A year later, Youngkin earned the support of 46% of suburbanites.
Youngkin was backed by 45% of college-educated voters in this year’s election; in 2020, 38% went for Trump. Youngkin also did somewhat better than Trump among white voters — both men and women. White voters made up 72% of the electorate and backed Youngkin over McAuliffe, 59% to 40%. In 2020, 52% of white voters backed Trump.
These inroads likely reflect the changes in who voted, rather than signs of a massive defection from Democrats. Just 5% of Biden voters voted for Youngkin — and a similar share of Trump voters switched to McAuliffe.
In his victory speech early Wednesday, Youngkin said his campaign “came from nowhere” and managed to bring together “neighbors, friends of all races, of all religions, of all ages, of all political ideologies.”
Youngkin's broad improvements bolstered other Republicans on the ballot. Republican Winsome Sears made history as the first Black woman elected statewide as she won the lieutenant governor's office.
In the race for attorney general, the contest was too early to call, but Republican Jason Miyares declared victory early Wednesday.
And in the statehouse, where Democrats made tremendous gains during the Trump administration, Republicans claimed to have retaken the majority in the House of Delegates. Several key races were also too early to call Wednesday afternoon, though Republicans had won at least 50 seats, ensuring at least a tie with Democrats.
Terry Kilgore, veteran member of the House who announced a bid for speaker Wednesday, said Youngkin won in large part because of his focus on rural areas other recent candidates had neglected in favor of bigger population centers. Kilgore noted Youngkin spent the Sunday before Election Day barnstorming through parts of the mountainous and economically beleaguered southwest Virginia he's represented since 1994.
“I think that was the difference in last night's election. ... He showed up," Kilgore said.
Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut in Washington contributed.
Sarah Rankin And Nicholas Riccardi, The Associated Press