Tuesday night’s GOP electoral romp in Virginia, headlined by Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin’s victory over former governor and longtime Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe, ought to be a watershed moment for the trajectory of American conservative politics and the Republican Party.
The sweep of the Old Dominion’s governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general positions, making for the first statewide GOP victories in the once-solidly red commonwealth since 2009, amounts to a repudiation of the decades of pablum dished out by Republicans’ well-paid, but myopic, K Street consultant class. That conventional wisdom, best encapsulated by the Republican National Committee’s infamous “autopsy” following Mitt Romney’s defeat to Barack Obama, held that the party’s electoral path forward was best realized by sticking to the dog-eared free-market playbook and avoiding the contentious “cultural” issues of immigration, identity politics, and the like.
That self-serving narrative—namely, the notion that “cultural” issues are political losers for the GOP—was always terrible electoral advice, but it did redound to the interest of the Republican Party’s more secular, socially liberal Acela corridor elite. Every well-coiffed “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” Republican consultant wished this to be true. But it is, and always has been, profoundly untrue. As Virginia proved this week, the clearest path forward for Republicans is not to shy away from cultural issues but to engage the culture and fight the culture war with the aim of victory.
A Washington Post poll last week showed, in the run-up to the Virginia gubernatorial election, that voters’ number one most important issue was not the economy, but education. And over the month from late September through late October, Virginia voters whose number one issue was education shifted a remarkable 42 points from McAuliffe to Youngkin.
The reason is simple. In one of the more consequential gaffes in recent political history, McAuliffe said in a late September debate with Youngkin: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The unmistakable background context was the controversy surrounding the proliferation of critical race theory in school curricula all across the country, and for which suburban Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Virginia had already emerged as a local battleground.
The injection of CRT—and parents’ control over their children’s education, more generally—as the preeminent political issue in the Virginia elections sealed the deal, in retrospect, for Republicans. Youngkin and other victorious Republicans owe a huge debt of gratitude to Christopher Rufo, the documentary filmmaker-turned-CRT archfoe who has emerged as one of the most effective conservative activists in America, shining a spotlight wherever he can on the galling, sordid racial indoctrination that has metastasized throughout America’s classrooms and boardrooms. The Youngkin campaigned leaped headfirst into the CRT battle, confident that public opinion was on its side, and stood unapologetically with elementary school parents distraught over woke public school teachers arrogating to themselves the power to tell toddlers to hate themselves and hate their country, to boot.
Virginia Republicans, in short, studiously did not avoid a bread-and-butter cultural issue—one that sits at the thorny intersection of families, public schools, and race itself. Virginia Republicans decided to fight the culture war with the aim of securing victory for righteously indignant parents and defeating the enemy, woke public school bureaucracies and anti-white racial hucksters. In so doing, the GOP took back the commonwealth of Virginia, which Joe Biden had carried over Donald Trump by a double-digit margin just one year prior, for the first time in 12 years.
And this is not a purely education/CRT-related phenomenon. On any number of other core civilizational issues, such as those that affect foundational questions of humanity, sovereignty, and citizenship, the path forward for Republicans is clear. The median American, even in light-blue Virginia, does not want gender ideology to toxify to the point where biological men compete with biological women in athletic competition, or where biological men can freely unzip and urinate in the women’s bathroom. The median American, and certainly the median swing-state suburbanite, does not want hundreds of thousands of dollars in de facto reparations doled out to immigrants illegally flooding our border. The median American adamantly opposes second-trimester, let alone third-trimester, abortion on demand.
The K Street consultant class has been shattered. Indeed, the GOP’s obvious path forward is the precise opposite of what the 2012 RNC “autopsy” suggested: Craft an economic agenda that is less neoliberal and more family-centric, but double down and fight like there’s no tomorrow on the cultural front. Youngkin helps show the way.
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