Republican Glenn Youngkin wins Virginia governor's race, jolting Democrats

Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor's race early Wednesday, tapping into culture war fights over schools and race to unite former president Donald Trump's most fervent supporters with enough suburban voters to become the first Republican to win statewide office here in 12 years.

Election seen as test of voter sentiment toward U.S. President Joe Biden

Glenn Youngkin gestures during a campaign event in Leesburg, Va., Monday. Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Tuesday's vote for governor. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor's race early Wednesday, tapping into culture war fights over schools and race to unite former U.S. president Donald Trump's most fervent supporters with enough suburban voters to become the first Republican to win statewide office there in 12 years.

Youngkin's victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe marked a sharp turn in a state that had shifted to the left over the past decade and that U.S. President Joe Biden captured by 10 points in 2020. And as the party felt the sting from that loss, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey was virtually deadlocked in his bid to win reelection in a state Biden won by 15 points.

The elections were the first major tests of voter sentiment since Biden took office and suggested growing frustration. They also underscored that, with Trump out of office, Democrats can't centre messages to voters solely on their opposition to him. The results ultimately pointed to a potentially painful year ahead for Democrats as they try to maintain thin majorities in Congress.

They also put a new focus on congressional Democrats' inability so far to pass Biden's massive domestic policy legislation, though it's unclear whether the defeat will be enough to jolt them into action.

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former governor Terry McAuliffe takes the stage during a campaign event at Caboose Commons in Fairfax on Monday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Republicans celebrated their strong showing with Youngkin telling a cheering crowd of supporters that "this is the spirit of Virginia coming together like never before." That strength extended to down-ballot races, including the Virginia lieutenant governor's race, which Republican Winsome Sears won, becoming the first woman of colour to win statewide office.

McAuliffe formally conceded in a statement Wednesday morning that congratulated Youngkin.

"Losing is never easy," he said. "We put ourselves out there and left it all on the field."

Attracted Trump's base

A political neophyte, Youngkin was able to take advantage of apparent apathy among core Democratic voters fatigued by years of elections that were seen as must-wins, as well as growing frustrations with Biden and the economy.

He successfully portrayed McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, Democratic National Committee chairman and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as part of an elite class of politicians. He also seized on a late-stage stumble by McAuliffe, who during a debate performance suggested parents should have a minimal role in shaping school curriculums.

Youngkin talks to reporters outside a polling station in Chantilly, Va., Tuesday. During his campaign, the Republican alluded to some of former president Donald Trump's false claims about the 2020 election being stolen. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Perhaps most significantly, Youngkin prevailed in a task that has stumped scores of Republicans before him: attracting Trump's base while also appealing to suburban voters who were repelled by the former president's divisive behaviour.

During the campaign, Youngkin stated his support for "election integrity," a nod at Trump's lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while also focusing on education and business-friendly policies. He never campaigned in person with Trump, successfully challenging McAuliffe's effort to cast him as a clone of the former president.

That approach could provide a model for Republicans competing in future races that feature significant numbers of Democratic or independent voters.

Elsewhere in the country Tuesday, mayoral contests helped shape the leadership of some of the nation's largest cities. Democratic former police captain Eric Adams won in New York City, and Boston voters elected former city councillor Michelle Wu as the city's first female Asian American mayor. Cincinnati, too, is getting its first Asian American mayor, Aftab Pureval.

Eric Adams, who won the race for mayor in New York, speaks to supporters Tuesday night. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

Minneapolis police initiative rejected

Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot initiative that sought to overhaul policing in their city, where George Floyd was killed by a white police officer on Memorial Day 2020, sparking the largest wave of protests against racial injustice in generations.

The initiative would have replaced the police force with a Department of Public Safety charged with undertaking "a comprehensive public health" approach to policing.

In the New Jersey governor's race, incumbent Gov. Murphy was trying to become the first Democrat reelected to the office in 44 years. But Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli posted a surprisingly strong showing, campaigning on issues including taxes and opposition to pandemic mandates for masks and vaccinations. The race was too early to call with votes still being tallied.

But no other contest in this off-year election season received the level of national attention — and money — as the governor's race in Virginia, a state with broad swaths of college-educated suburban voters who are increasingly influential in swaying control of Congress and the White House.

A former co-CEO at the Carlyle Group with a lanky, six foot, six inch build that once made him a reserve forward on Rice University's basketball team, Youngkin poured vast amounts of his personal fortune into a campaign that spent more than $59 million. Favouring fleece vests, Youngkin, 54, sought to cut the image of a genial suburban dad.

Volunteers urge community members to vote yes on a police ballot question outside of a polling place on Tuesday in Minneapolis. Voters rejected the initiative. (Christian Monterrosa/The Associated Press)

Youngkin ran confidently on a conservative platform. He opposed a major clean energy mandate the state passed two years ago and objected to abortion in most circumstances.

He also opposed mask and vaccine mandates, promised to expand Virginia's limited charter schools and ban critical race theory, an academic framework that centres on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation's institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people.

In recent months, it has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.

McAuliffe tried to energize the Democratic base by highlighting abortion, denouncing a new Texas law that largely banned the procedure and warning that Youngkin would seek to implement similar restrictions.

WATCH | Elections first major tests for Biden since his victory:

Virginia election seen as Biden litmus test ahead of midterm elections

3 months ago
Duration 2:46
The governor race in Virginia is being watched as a litmus test for U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, especially as Democrats slump in national polls. 2:46

Youngkin didn't discuss abortion much publicly, and a liberal activist caught him on tape saying the issue couldn't help him during the campaign. He said an election win would allow the party to "start going on offence" on the issue.

While McAuliffe pulled on the star power of a host of national Democrats, including former U.S. president Barack Obama and ex-Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams, Youngkin largely campaigned on his own, focusing on issues he said were important to Virginians.