The last 5, 10, and 20 years have brought on all sorts of surprising and unexpected events. The Virginia election wasn’t really one of them.
In an era when politics is supposed to present you with unexpected plot twists, Virginia was suspenseful, but not shocking. It didn’t have to come out this way, but neither did it break any established patterns. The lessons of the election and the campaign are timeworn.
But implementing those lessons can be a lot harder than grasping them.
Glenn Youngkin had a clear message that addressed people’s needs, that combined a political insurgency with optimism, and he stuck with it, avoided media distractions, and just kept hammering the same points home over and over again.
It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s also basic marketing, public relations, and campaigning.
Youngkin understood that people were angry and frustrated, but that they also wanted hope, he deftly wove between cultural and economic issues, did his best to be non-threatening to suburban women, and effectively used his wife in the campaign, while at the same time inspiring and energizing his base. It was a tough juggling act and yet he regularly made it seem easy.
That’s the difference between a candidate who can go the distance and one who can’t.
In 2022 and 2024, there will be Republicans lining up to try and exploit the public backlash and they would be smart to learn those lessons without slavishly copying them because they’re not Youngkin, DeSantis, or Trump, and they won’t be running for office in the same places.
What specifically worked in Virginia may not work in quite the same way elsewhere.
But where Republicans fail in so many competitive elections is at connecting with the voters. It’s not a fatal blow to a Democrat whose marketing campaign comes from the same media that tries to distance voters from the idea of even supporting Republicans. The media will aggressively market Dem candidates and, if the Republican candidate doesn’t seem to be much of a threat, ignore his existence, and if he is, spend the campaign attacking him in every possible way. Republicans who get caught up in reactively responding all the time, lose.
People are angry and frustrated. They’re looking for a voice to express their anger and pain. And the issue may not even be the issue. How many of the parents agitated legitimately about critical race theory were really upset about school lockdowns and financial trauma?
It doesn’t really matter.
Effective politicians understand that issues are often a vehicle for channeling internalized outrage. They offer them a chance to be heard. In their own ways, both Youngkin and Trump did that. Successful candidates in competitive races will have to find their own way to allow the people to be heard.