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The spoils / November 04, 2021
Surveying the field of victory — or the desolation of the Mongol horde, depending on your point of view — following an election is as American as baseball, apple pie and getting kicked off an American Airlines flight for acting up, so I might as well join the crowd.

For voters like me, obviously last Tuesday was a dreadful Election Day. Congratulations to the other side and please do your sincere best to live up to your promises to move Virginia forward. That’s a task that requires meeting the world as it is, not as it was depicted in the campaign — more on that in a moment — but in all sincerity, to the winning GOP ticket, good luck making the Commonwealth a better place to live, work and play.

About Tuesday’s outcome: Virginia Democrats had what turned out to be an overwhelming assignment — extending their political dominance in a state where Republicans hadn’t won in 12 years — so while Democratic voters became reasonably engaged late in the 2021 election cycle, Republican voters were hungry. Big difference. Democrats also faced an uphill climb in an off-year election with a new president from their own party in the White House, amid times of upheaval as the U.S. struggles to overcome the worst public health emergency in more than a century. It was easy to underestimate the challenge — I sure did — of running as the political party in charge at a time like this. The natural inclination of voters is to vote for change, and that’s exactly what almost 51 percent of Virginians did in this election.

While some of the outcome can be chalked up to standard-issue backlash politics — the party in the White House has lost the race for Virginia governor 11 times out of the past 12 — Republican victories on Tuesday were not the product of simple inertia. Pundits already are breaking down the election’s implications into tiny pieces (now there’s a Mongol horde for you), but it would be hard not to start with this data point, from exit poll results: In 2020, White women in Virginia voted 50-49 in favor of Joe Biden. In 2021 they voted 57-43 for Glenn Youngkin. (The latter numbers are from NBC News exit polling, but the rough split has shown up in other public opinion surveys.) Notably, Democratic support eroded badly or collapsed altogether in the suburbs (Loudoun and Chesterfield counties offer good examples) and rural areas ran up huge margins for the Republican ticket. Even with all this happening, it was still a close race, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades as they say.

Terry McAuliffe was like any other candidate, with strengths and weaknesses and otherwise being nobody’s idea of perfect, but without question he hurt his campaign badly with one ill-advised debate remark: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” This gaffe turned out to be a warhead launched at his own chances of victory. It galvanized the frustration of families that have been locked out of their schools for much of the past year to stop the spread of COVID-19, and with everyone now thoroughly sick of endlessly hearing about covid-covid-covid, conditions were ripe for attacks on Virginia’s K-12 schools. I think school boards and administrators around Virginia (including our own) have done the right thing by responding to COVID-19 with an abundance of caution, but last year’s school shutdowns and this year’s masking rules and quarantine orders were always guaranteed to make lots of people unhappy. Local school boards (and the Democratic-run state department of education) have made tough calls that saved lives (if not that of students, then of school staff and family elders back home) but good luck trying to build public support on the basis of hypotheticals.

The direction may have been set for broadsides against liberal-run school divisions, but let’s not confuse a winning strategy with any basic standard of honesty: Many of the talking points used in this campaign (by Youngkin and others on the GOP ticket) were inflammatory and outright false. It used to be that children were considered off-limits to political attacks, but a very unfortunate case in Loudoun County involving student sexual assault became a key wedge that Youngkin and other Republicans used to cleave women voters away from the Democratic Party. The basic story is this: After a girl was assaulted in a high school bathroom by a boy wearing a skirt, the girl’s father told a right-wing media outlet that she had been attacked by a transgender schoolmate. (Loudoun County did not have a policy in place at the time allowing trans students to use bathrooms aligned with their gender identity, although the school board was considering such a policy at the time.) At trial, a more complicated picture emerged of the assault: The girl and boy had had an ongoing sexual relationship, she invited him to meet her in the school bathroom to talk, and things went downhill from there. Look, sexual assault is never tolerable, and it was appropriate to escalate this incident to the criminal justice system. But it was also a consciousless act to take an isolated case of relationship violence between teens and whip it into a moral panic that might have single-handedly swung the election the Republicans’ way. That, on top of the non-stop nonsense about “Critical Race Theory” — sorry, still not taught in Virginia schools — was enough to do in McAuliffe. His unfortunate remark about parental involvement in schools made these attacks difficult to parry, and Republicans pounced.

The bit about parents being shut out of school life is, of course, false — ask any School Board member, principal or teacher about that one — but so the story goes in politics, I guess. I get that winning is the only metric by which successful candidates are judged, but heaven help us when we get to the point where truth is the sole province of the hapless and pure demagoguery rules. Maybe that time has already arrived, and it’s been this way for a long while. After all, it was all the way back in 1954 when Army lawyer Joseph Welsh asked Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy the famous question — “Have you no sense of decency? — and we’re still waiting for an answer.

What does the Republican rout of 2021 portend for next year’s mid-term congressional elections? Who knows. Democrats are clearly at dire risk of losing their paper-thin majorities in the House and Senate. What should they do about this? It may help that Congress and the Biden White House have passed an infrastructure bill with lots of good stuff in it — including tens of billions of dollars to make high-speed rural internet a reality, at last — but none of this is likely to be popular enough to save the party’s bacon next year. Democrats’ best hope may be Republican Party overreach, which is always a distinct possibility. Stay tuned.

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