RICHMOND, Va. — Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey narrowly won reelection in his reliably blue state while a Republican political newcomer delivered a stunning upset in the Virginia governor’s race, sending a warning Wednesday to Democrats that their grip on power in Washington may be in peril.
In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin became the first Republican to win statewide office in a dozen years, tapping into culture war fights over schools and race to unite former President Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters with enough suburban voters to notch a victory.
Meanwhile, Murphy barely eked out a victory against GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli, who mounted a surprisingly strong campaign on issues including taxes and opposition to pandemic mask and vaccination mandates.
The two states' results were particularly alarming to Democrats because of where they happened. President Joe Biden carried Virginia by 10 points last year. He took New Jersey by more than 15. Given the scale of those victories, neither state was seen as especially competitive when this year's campaigns began.
But the first major elections of Biden's presidency suggested growing discontent among voters. They also underscored that, with Trump out of office, Democrats can't center their messages on opposition to him. The results ultimately pointed to a potentially painful year ahead for Democrats as they try to maintain thin majorities in Congress.
And they put a new focus on congressional Democrats' inability so far to pass Biden’s massive domestic policy legislation, though it's unclear whether the defeat will be enough to jolt his party into action.
Speaking from the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Biden said Democrats need to “produce for the American people.”
Republicans celebrated their strong showing, with Youngkin telling a cheering crowd of supporters that “this is the spirit of Virginia coming together like never before." The GOP's strength extended to down-ballot contests, including the lieutenant governor's race, which Winsome Sears won, becoming the first woman of color to win Virginia statewide office.
McAuliffe formally conceded in a statement Wednesday morning that congratulated Youngkin.
“Losing is never easy,” he said. “We put ourselves out there and left it all on the field.”
A political neophyte, Youngkin was able to take advantage of apparent apathy among core Democratic voters fatigued by years of elections that were seen as must-wins, as well as growing frustrations with Biden and the economy. He successfully portrayed McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, Democratic National Committee chairman and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as part of an elite class of politicians. He also seized on a late-stage stumble by McAuliffe, who during a debate suggested parents should have a minimal role in shaping school curriculums.
Perhaps most significantly, Youngkin prevailed in a task that has stumped scores of Republicans before him: attracting Trump's base while also appealing to suburban voters who were repelled by the former president's divisive behavior.
During the campaign, Youngkin stated his support for “election integrity,” a nod at Trump's lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, while also focusing on education and business-friendly policies. He never campaigned in person with Trump, successfully challenging McAuliffe's effort to cast him as a clone of the former president.
That approach could provide a model for Republicans competing in future races that feature significant numbers of Democratic or independent voters.
Elsewhere Tuesday, some of the nation's largest cities held mayoral contests. Democratic former police captain Eric Adams won in New York, and Boston voters elected City Councilor Michelle Wu as its first female and Asian American mayor. Cincinnati is getting its first Asian American mayor, Aftab Pureval.
Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot initiative that sought to overhaul policing in their city, where George Floyd was killed by a white police officer on Memorial Day 2020, sparking the largest wave of protests against racial injustice in generations. The initiative would have replaced the police force with a Department of Public Safety charged with undertaking “a comprehensive public health” approach to policing.
But no other contest in this off-year election season received the level of national attention — and money — as the governor's race in Virginia, a state with broad swaths of college-educated suburban voters who are increasingly influential in swaying control of Congress and the White House.
A former co-CEO at the Carlyle Group with a lanky, 6′6″ build that once made him a reserve forward on Rice University's basketball team, Youngkin poured vast amounts of his personal fortune into a campaign that spent more than $59 million. Favoring fleece vests, Youngkin sought to cut the image of a genial suburban dad.
Youngkin ran confidently on a conservative platform. He opposed a major clean energy mandate the state passed two years ago and objected to abortion in most circumstances.
He also opposed mask and vaccine mandates, and he promised to expand Virginia’s limited charter schools and ban critical race theory, an academic framework that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of white people. In recent months, it has become a catch-all political buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.
McAuliffe tried to energize the Democratic base by highlighting abortion, denouncing a new Texas law that largely banned the procedure and warning that Youngkin would seek to implement similar restrictions.
Youngkin didn't discuss abortion much publicly, and a liberal activist caught him on tape saying the issue couldn't help him during the campaign. He said an election win would allow the party to “start going on offense” on the issue.
While McAuliffe pulled on the star power of a host of national Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and ex-Georgia governor candidate Stacey Abrams, Youngkin largely campaigned on his own, focusing on issues he said were important to Virginians.
Polls showed the race tightening after McAuliffe said during a late September debate that 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.
The race took an especially bitter turn last week, when Youngkin ran an ad featuring a mother and GOP activist who eight years ago led an effort to ban “Beloved,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Black Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, from classrooms.
McAuliffe accused Youngkin of uncorking a “racist dog whistle," but Youngkin said Virginia parents knew what was really at stake — and so did families across the country. That was a nod to how tapping into parental activism could work for the GOP next year and in future election cycles.
“America is watching Virginia," Youngkin said as part of his closing argument.
Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, Hank Kurz in Richmond, Alexandra Jaffe in McLean and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.