Analysis: Education and Democrat infighting lead to Democratic upset in Virginia


WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race Wednesday, tapping into debates over schooling, Democrat infighting and uniting former President Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters with enough suburban voters to become the first Republican to win statewide office in a dozen years.

Youngkin’s defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe marked a sharp turnabout in a state that has shifted to the left over the past decade and was captured by President Joe Biden last year by a 10-point margin.

But what was the turning point in the election that turned a blue state red? NewsNation’s Leland Vittert says the seminal moments came down to McAuliffe’s response on education at a September debate.

You can view live election results from races across the nation here.

Polls showed the race tightening after McAuliffe commented he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” That prompted Youngkin to run hundreds of TV ads on the statement and to focus on his own pledges to make school curricula less “un-American” and to overhaul policies on transgender students and school bathrooms.

“Terry McAuliffe at a debate said look I don’t think parents should have a role in their kids’ education. Basically saying parents get out,” said Vittert. “The exit polling shows that a vast majority of Virginia voters said, ‘Look, I need to have a role in my kid’s education.’ Parents, for example, voted for Youngkin by nearly 20 points.”

During the campaign, Youngkin made education a key part of his messaging, mobilizing voters concerned about race and education. He tried to link his education platform to the frustrations of Virginia activist groups — already upset by issues like school coronavirus pandemic restrictions and transgender policies. Youngkin opposed mask and vaccine mandates, promised to expand Virginia’s limited charter schools and ban critical race theory.

On a national level, the political tracking website Ballotpedia, identified 76 school districts in 22 states where candidates took a stance on race in education or critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic in America’s institutions. The National School Boards Association says it is not taught in K-12 public schools.

Among the voters surveyed in Virginia, almost a fourth cited education as the most important issue, according to Ballotpedia.

“Education has become this catch-all issue. Critical race theory, transgender bathrooms, what’s being taught in schools, as it relates more broadly to progressive issues around sexuality, around race, mask mandates, vaccine mandates, in-person school and the power of the teacher unions,” Vittert said on “Morning in America”. “All of those fall under education.”

Voters who ranked the economy and education as the top issues were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters. Voters who identified COVID-19 as the top issue supported McAuliffe over Youngkin. McAuliffe also earned the majority backing of the roughly 2 in 10 who ranked health care, climate change or racism as the top issue.

McAuliffe tried to closely tie Youngkin to Trump, running television ads that juxtaposed his calls for better election security with images of Trump and the Capitol riot.

A Democratic source told Vittert that beyond the education debate, they believe Democratic infighting contributed to McAullife’s loss. Democrats have bickered over Biden’s infrastructure bill throughout the fall.

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“I got a text message from a very prominent Democrat last night, former officeholder, a very big donor in the party. He made it very clear to me, he said McAuliffe did not lose this. AOC, Bernie and the progressive squad took it from him,” Vittert said. “So there is this feeling in the Democratic Party that even though we hear education in polling and it’s very easy for people who are getting a phone survey or being talked to as they come out of the election polling site to say ‘This was about education,’ you have to look at education as this proxy for the woke worldview. It has taken over the Democratic Party and taken over suburbs in the United States, specifically Northern Virginia, in schools over the past year.”

NewsNation’s Nick Smith broke down some of the exit polls. You can watch the full analysis below.

The switch is certain to add to the Democrats’ anxiety about their grip on political power heading into next year’s midterms when the party’s thin majority in Congress could be erased.

It is important to note exit polls don’t always tell the complete picture of the electorate. Like all polls, they’re subject to under-representing some viewpoints, especially with a large percentage of voters casting their ballots by mail this year.

Analysis from NewsNation’s Leland Vittert.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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