RICHENDOLLAR: Republicans Need A Positive Vision If They Are Going To Build On The Win In Virginia

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Tuesday night, political upstart Glenn Youngkin narrowly defeated former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the blue-tinted Commonwealth of Virginia, 50.5-49%.

Though imperfect, county-level results and exit polls suggest McAuliffe’s intransigence on education and gender ideology cost him the governorship. Virginia is a blue state, but not so cerulean that a majority could ignore what transpired in Loudoun County, where district policy led to a transgender biological male raping a female 9th grader in the girls’ bathroom and a subsequent effort to sweep the incident under the proverbial rug. Youngkin gained vis-à-vis previous GOP candidates with minority voters. He clawed back a substantial share of the suburban moderates around Richmond, Virginia Beach and in Northern Virginia who voted against Donald Trump in 2020. Most notably, Youngkin rolled up huge margins in rural Virginia despite his culturally moderate campaign and style. Combined, these factors put the be-fleeced Republican over the top in a statewide race for the first time since 2009. These are encouraging signs for Republicans nationwide, but they also warrant caution.

Compared to the analogous 2009 off-year elections, this year’s contests in Old Dominion and the Garden State indicate the Right must rethink its long-term strategy. We are winning battles but losing wars.

In 2009, Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell faced a political climate similar to today’s. The Affordable Care Act’s introduction, economic uncertainty and the Democrats’ rapid leftward shift on cultural issues like policing and guns produced a powerful backlash. President Obama, then in his first year, saw flagging approval ratings by fall 2009. In this environment, McDonnell trounced his Democratic opponent Creigh Deeds by a 17.5% margin statewide, carrying a nearly 2-1 margin in Loudoun County and narrowly winning the counties of Albemarle and Fairfax, a now-unthinkable feat for any Republican. All three counties, though not as blue as 2020, voted Democratic last night, Fairfax nearly 2-1.

Moreover, the fall 2009 backlash to Obamacare and managerial liberalism produced Republican governors in both New Jersey (Chris Christie) and Virginia (McDonnell), and in Virginia by a landslide. This year’s backlash to Joe Biden’s disastrous first year, marked by inflation, international humiliation, and elite caprice, barely produced a Republican victory in Virginia, where the Democrats nominated an awful candidate and the local circumstances were tailor-made for GOP gains in the suburbs. In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy narrowly won reelection.

While conservatives’ short-run victory in recapturing the Virginia governor’s mansion is laudable, the long-term trend is troubling nonetheless, and symbolic of conservatism’s broader failure over the last few decades. We win electoral victories when the Left’s economic and cultural craziness produces a reaction (2009, 2010, 2014, 2016), but then find ourselves unable to use that victory to arrest the long-term trends rending our economic, cultural and constitutional order. In this framework, Democrats only lose when they overstep what the public is ready to accept by openly embracing gay marriage or a government subsidy of healthcare in 2009, and when Republicans win, they are unable to stop the strong cultural undercurrents assuring that a decade later, such things are sacrosanct. In 2021, a candidate opposing government subsidy for health care and gay marriage would not win a Republican primary. Don’t believe me? In the 2016 GOP primary, Donald Trump accepted Obergefell v. Hodges and promised more and “smarter,” not less, government intervention in health care, as if the problem with Obamacare was not its premise but its inefficient design. In Virginia and New Jersey, we see the same.

Whereas in 2009, we could elect conservative governors of both states because of the backlash to conventional stimulus, Obamacare and comparatively tame gun control proposals, we today can barely elect one in Virginia on the backlash to much more radical policies such as CRT, gender ideology, “guns as a public health issue” chatter and unprecedented federal spending. Although the Republican Party remains competitive, even in blue-trending states like Virginia, it has retreated to stay in the game. The left’s long-run strategy of creating entrenched interests dependent on big government, from doctors dependent on Medicare to people dependent on welfare checks, is working, as are their twin strategies of growing the administrative state’s power, taking over institutions from academia to the media and using that institutional power to create a generational churn in core values from the old constitutional order centered on liberties to the new one centered on equity.

Conservatives can ill afford to merely capitalize on backlash and then squander the political power conferred. We must articulate a positive vision for where America is headed: what does schooling look like, our economy, our foreign policy, our moral fabric? Only then will we be able to overcome the inexorable shift to the left — where the Right ends up parroting the Left’s arguments from one generation earlier — which has characterized the last century. Otherwise, there may not be a Republican governor in Virginia again after 2025 for quite some time. At least not a Republican governor you’d recognize.

Nathan Richendollar is a summa cum laude economics and politics graduate of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. He lives in Southwest Missouri with his wife Bethany and works in the financial sector.