Trump (and the Culture War) Won Virginia

As one battle ends in Virginia, another one begins.

Right-leaning Americans have every right to bask in the glory of the red wave that swept the Commonwealth, propelling Republicans to wins in all three statewide offices, as well as a new, albeit narrow, majority in the House of Delegates. With Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, Lieutenant Governor-elect Winsome Sears, and Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares all holding steady at about 51 percent each, the 2021 results mark a nearly 15-point swing from Joe Biden’s victory in the state just one year ago.

And if there’s one thing even more satisfying than Youngkin winning, it’s Terry McAuliffe losing. McAuliffe was already reprehensible enough, as one of the highest-ranking cohorts of the Clinton Machine, and a man who had so devoted his life to politics that he left his pregnant wife in the delivery room just to attend a fundraiser. But his arrogance reached new heights when, in the closing weeks of the campaign, he demonstrated his presumed right to rule Virginia by walking out of interviews and berating reporters, simply for asking questions he didn’t like.

The end of the electoral battle marks the beginning of the messaging battle. If there is one thing establishment Republicans excel at, it’s learning the wrong lesson from any election result (just see the so-called “autopsy” after the 2012 election).

Make no mistake: This victory does not belong to Glenn Youngkin. It belongs to President Donald Trump and the citizens of Virginia who brought a culture war raising more awareness of the nation’s peril than any other election in recent memory.

We Don’t Need No “Education”

The exit polls confirm what the media coverage was predicting in the final weeks of the race: Education was front and center in this election. And it was not simply about “education” in the sense of haggling over budgetary concerns; it was about blood-boiling social issues that have turned Virginia’s public schools into a battleground.

Fox exit polls confirm that the dominant issue among Youngkin voters was education, and that they were especially energized after McAuliffe’s declaration in one of the debates that parents should have no say in their children’s education. When an NBC exit poll asked voters whether parents should have more or less say in curriculum decisions, 74 percent of McAuliffe voters said they should have more while only 23 percent said they should have less; in Youngkin’s camp, 94 percent said more, while just 3 percent said less.

At the heart of this focus on education was critical race theory, the far-left pseudo-intellectual conspiracy which declares that all white people are automatically racist, and that America, as a nation founded by white people, has been inherently racist since its founding. This concept has been taught in public schools for some time now, but is the focus of renewed and outraged attention only because COVID-inspired remote learning brought classrooms into the home and parents could finally see for themselves what their tax dollars are supporting.

In a close second to the anti-white race-baiting was the rise of pro-“transgender” policies, reinforcing the debunked and anti-scientific notion that there are more than two genders, and that children can simply “choose” their gender whenever they feel like it. Policies aimed at allowing students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice were marketed as “inclusive,” but instead—as the Right warned in the face of leftist mockery—they enabled rapists and sexual predators. The most famous case-in-point is the Loudoun County double-rape case, where a male student entered a female restroom wearing a skirt and raped a female freshman. He was quietly transferred to another school, only to assault another girl. He was eventually found guilty of his crimes by a juvenile court.

It’s the Culture, Stupid

At the intersection of these two fronts came the rise of one of the most grassroots right-wing movements in modern times: Parents protesting at school board meetings, demanding that critical race theory be struck from education, that bathrooms remain separated by gender as they should be, and that parents should have more of a say in what their children are taught in school. For daring to speak out against the almighty entity of the public school system, parents were doxxed by school board members, beaten and arrested by police, and labeled as domestic terrorists by Biden’s Department of Justice.

In the end, parents who were facing systematic oppression at every turn finally used the power of the ballot box. The top issues were not tax cuts or welfare reform, but something far more personal. Parents came out in full force and voted not with their wallets, but with their hearts. At long last, a strategy that has worked time and again for the Left ended up working in the Right’s favor.

Youngkin won because of the culture war, not despite it. Prior to the rise of the education issue, Youngkin had fumbled several other key social and cultural issues that also rank highly on the base’s list of priorities: He punted on election fraud before ultimately dismissing it, came out against pro-life laws like the one recently passed in Texas, and virtue-signaled to Black Lives Matter over the “Juneteenth” holiday and the removal of Confederate monuments.

Fortunately for Youngkin, he made his course correction on the one cultural issue that dominates all others. The one thing that is even more powerful than race, more meaningful than national history, and more emotional than the definition of life, is the relationship between parents and their children. Youngkin campaigned by promising to put an end to the systematic effort to drive wedges between students and their parents, in favor of an “enlightened” critical approach to life.

In Youngkin, voters saw someone who would fight for their uninhibited right to fulfill the most basic, and yet most important, role in their lives: being a parent. So they voted not because they cared desperately about one candidate’s pledge to cut taxes, or another candidate promising to reform the budget or restrict a particular government handout, but because the most precious thing in their lives—their own children—are essentially being held hostage by a government seeking to indoctrinate them.

The Role of Trump (and His Base)

For his efforts, Youngkin was well-rewarded. At the core of the massive shift to the Right in just about every county in the state was Youngkin’s support among the most oppressed demographic in the nation right now: white voters. Among white women, a bloc that Joe Biden narrowly won in the state last year (50 percent to Trump’s 49 percent), Youngkin won 57 percent to McAuliffe’s 43 percent. More specifically, among white women without a college education, Youngkin scored big with an astounding 75 percent to McAuliffe’s 25 percent. In 2020, Trump won 56 percent of this group, thus marking a staggering 19-point increase for Youngkin in just one year.

It has been well-documented that the backbone of the base that first elected Donald Trump to the White House was the white, non-college vote. Youngkin outperformed the president with this group, and that is due in large part to his focus on the anti-white screeds of critical race theory that have since become a mainstream issue.

Still, the role of Trump cannot be overstated. Much of the media coverage of Youngkin’s campaign has focused on the fact that he allegedly “distanced” himself from President Trump, but they ignore the more important fact that he didn’t actively push the president away; and, even more significantly, he did not treat the president’s voters with the same disdain that many other establishment Republicans continue to show them. He accepted President Trump’s endorsement and spent no time on the campaign trail condemning him.

This proved especially useful when the Left tried endlessly (and pointlessly) to compare Youngkin to Trump; Youngkin understood fully that these comparisons would come regardless, so there was no point in caving to the mainstream media by trying to claim that he was not like the president.

As the former president himself said in a post-election statement, his base turned out in full force for Youngkin, especially in the rural areas outside the wealthy northeastern counties, which greatly boosted his statewide totals as Democrats failed to turn out in the same areas. As much as the media may try to paint this as a victory for Youngkin despite President Trump’s looming presence over the party, the fact of the matter is that Youngkin needed these voters to win. No political analyst will try to claim, with a straight face, that Youngkin would be the governor-elect right now if he had gone full Mitt Romney and openly disavowed the former president.

The Wrong Takes and The Right Take

As it turns out, it is entirely possible to thread the needle of embracing President Trump and his voters, while simultaneously appealing to moderate suburban voters. The results in Virginia should prove, once and for all, that the Republican Party does not need to run away from Trump in order to win in states that he allegedly lost to Biden. In fact, using the Virginia election as an excuse to return to the old mantras of the GOP will only waste the valuable lessons of Tuesday night.

And yet, some Republicans will try to do exactly that, and insist that it was their milquetoast policy positions and rhetoric that won the day. In the days before the election, the Associated Press reported that the Virginia GOP saw Youngkin’s candidacy as a “chance to reverse course.” In the aftermath of his win, the House GOP gleefully declared on Twitter that McAuliffe’s loss was a rejection of “socialism.” The Hill claimed that Youngkin’s victory is proof that “Trump isn’t needed to win.”

The demographics do not lie. Youngkin won by appealing simultaneously to the Trump base and the so-called “moderates” who supposedly did not back Trump last year. As it turns out, these two groups could be united by the same core issue; and, contrary to the takeaways of the Washington class of Republican leadership or “conservative” pundits, it was not the tired old boogeyman of “socialism,” or an active effort to cut Trump off from the Republican Party. It was the culture war that is dominating the public school system, with the children of Virginia caught in the crossfire. And this is a culture war that the Right would not be fighting right now were it not for President Trump leading the first charge into that battle.

Republicans now have a nearly bulletproof campaign strategy that can, should, and must be weaponized in 2022 and 2024. All Republicans who campaign against critical race theory, “transgender” bathrooms, and the demonization of parents who dare to speak out against these things will have the support of an electorate that is fired up to a level not seen since 2010. And, just as importantly, they will have the blessing of the 45th president of the United States, who crafted this strategy in the first place. 

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About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

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