by Shaun Kenney
Yeah — I’m a bit bitter over this one.
Virginia Republicans did everything we were asked, despite our intuition. We narrowed the talking points, stayed in our lanes, muffled internal criticisms, and allowed the effort to be centralized. Consultants made their money as they do every election and the Democrats outspent us as we thought.
Yet at the end of the day, redistricting did us in — and voters were given a choice between Virginia Democrats or Glenn Youngkin.
They chose the Democrats — barely.
By The Numbers? Spirit of Virginia PAC Got Republicans Awfully Close…
Consider that Democrats did not win a single seat where Youngkin earned 52% of the vote or higher. Not a single one. Likewise, Republicans did not win a single seat where Youngkin did not perform 50% or better.
Biden’s favorable numbers were also just about where they were in 2021, hovering in the low-40s (RCP has Biden at 41.4%). 2023 was no repeat of 2017, where Democrats enjoyed a massive victory over Republicans one year after Donald Trump was elected president.
A 51-49 House and a 21-19 Senate is no mandate — it is stasis.
Bolling: Three Reasons Why Republicans Fell Short
There will be a temptation to blame the outcome of the 2023 elections on abortion, but this is not the case at all.
Consider SD-27 where Republican Tara Durant ran as an unabashedly pro-life Catholic against Democrat Joel Griffin, who advocated for late term abortions up to 40 weeks. Within that same district in HD-65, Republican Lee Peters carefully couched at 15-week regulation while Democrat Joshua Cole argued a personally pro-life position while advocating for a more intensive social safety net for mothers.
Given that Democrats did not push out Republicans in any seat which Youngkin won in 2021, the culprit falls on redistricting and redistricting alone. In fact, some blame could be placed on the fact that Republicans were not decisive enough on a question as clear and as important as life, and voters detected the hypocrisy. Too clever by half is too clever indeed.
Next is the omnipresent influence of former President Donald J. Trump on the Virginia electorate.
True, it has changed the nature of what it means to be a Republican to some degree, shifting the old conservative-libertarian alliance to a conservative-populist one in theory.
Such a shift takes the old battleground states and moves them to places where — if The New York Times is to be believed — Trump is winning in 5 of the 6 states, Pennsylvania and Arizona included. Woe to Virginia, perhaps, but at some point, Republicans have to stop whining about it and start rediscovering that rare earth element known as a spine.
Have things really changed so much from 2014, where Republicans lost by a whisker? Are things so different nine years after the fact where Republicans once again have lost by a whisker? After having swept all three statewide seats by a whisker?
Which brings us to the penultimate point where Bolling and I heartily agree:
Republicans (and this one really amazes me) never offered the voters a compelling reason to vote for them. They never put together a cohesive argument as to what they would do to help improve the lives of Virginians if they were elected. Governor Youngkin tried to do this with his own TV ads late in the campaign, but it was too little, too late.
You can’t beat something with nothing, folks.
It is one thing to be so defined that you give the opposition a reason not to vote for you on a given issue. Something else to be so undefined as not to give supporters a reason to turn out. In 2021, Youngkin’s team was handed a resolution — give supporters a reason to vote against the Democrats. McAuliffe supplied the hammer, and Youngkin held the tongs.
Yet the trick only works once.
Bolling puts the question quite nicely, though I would argue that it is a question which had bedeviled Republicans since we lost George Allen’s leadership 2006:
The challenge for the GOP remains what it has been since 2013. How does the party nominate candidates and run campaigns that energize and mobilize the Republican base, which remains very conservative; while at the same time reaching out to the suburban voters it is losing, voters who are much more moderate in their political beliefs.
The three model Republican governors thus far — Allen, Gilmore, and McDonnell — all did one thing really well. We knew why they were running. Youngkin never quite found his why until the Day One plan, but even then — Day One really wasn’t terribly ambitious. Just achievable.
We didn’t have a Day Two plan.
Virginia Democrats, Clean Virginia Spent $35.7 Million Buying the General Assembly
Given the lay of the land, Republicans netted one seat in the Virginia Senate, carried 13 seats carried by Joe Biden in 2020, and carried seven of the 11 state Congressional seats. Fewer than 2,000 votes separated Republicans from victory in the State Senate; fewer than 2,500 votes separated Republicans from victory in the House of Delegates.
Which doesn’t sound too terrible, does it?
Here’s another thought: In a state carried by Joe Biden by 10 points and outspent by $7.5 million, Virginia Republicans came within just a few thousand votes of victory — for which there is no substitute.
Arguably, this election was not a blowout by any proportion. Without Youngkin’s presence, Tuesday could very well have given the Democrats their three-seat advantage in the State Senate as well as a three-seat advantage in the House of Delegates — given the ironclad framework of redistricting.
Yet likewise, there is a certain sentiment that Republicans didn’t lose insomuch as we forfeited. Nor did Democrats win insomuch as they merely bought — a rough wooing, if you will.
It’s Not Trump; Our Coalitions Matter
Virginia Republicans either get absolutely shellacked in an election, or the margins are super close and we either lose — in which case, the Western Experiment is over and America should pack it in — or we miraculously win and have set the new conservative standard for the next 20 years with Virginia in the Vanguard.
We do this to ourselves every year, folks.
Hope everyone loves their non-partisan (sic) redistricting courtesy of the State of California. Fact of the matter is that Virginia Democrats outspent Republicans by $7.5 million and nearly lost the whole thing.
Now with one seat margins, they will have to work with three statewide Republicans without any clear mandate other than a strong desire from the electorate to quit being crazy and start applying common sense.
As for Virginia Republicans and the vision thing, we really do have to start believing in ourselves. It isn’t enough to curse the darkness; light a few candles and rediscover the leadership and vision of our heroes.
Anyone remember Jeffersonian conservatism? Anyone else remember finally ending the universally hated car tax? How’s about expanding the sphere of human freedom for a change and allowing individuals — not government — the option to choose what is best for our families, our education, and ourselves?
Give me this coalition:
“The most important goal in my life is to have some significant impact in preserving and expanding the realm of personal freedom in the life of this country.”
If it looks familiar, then it should. It is the maxim employed by former RPV Chairman Richard Obenshain during the 1970s when the Republican Party of Virginia went from nothing under the Byrd Machine to powerhouse by the late 1970s.
Six years was all it took.
If one looks at the issues which have won for Virginians? Expanding and preserving individual freedom remains our lynchpin. Parental rights. School choice. Defending the basic right to exist. Quality jobs. Decent health care. Affordable housing. The right to bear arms. Freedom of worship and freedom of speech.
We need a general sense of what we are about, a positive vision of Virginia values which makes just as much sense at a barstool as it does in a living room or a cocktail party.
And we need leaders willing to express that vision in concrete terms to voters. Elect Republicans and we will accomplish the following three things — then lay them out and explain to voters why the vision works.
The one thing we cannot do is keep blaming Trump for our inability to win elections or provide leadership and vision to working class Virginians. Our demographics aren’t going to send us back to the Reagan Revolution. Democrats have built parallel institutions, including think tanks, media outlets, opinion writers and polling firms. Republicans have none of these institutions in Virginia.
The only ones who are going to ride to our rescue are ourselves — and 2024 is coming sooner than we realize.
One. Additional. Gripe.
I’m not going to do that.
…because there’s a bigger problem in front of us.
Virginia Democrats have a lot more strength than Virginia Republicans care to consider, and it will take all of us — all of us — and not just some of us to put up a resistance in 2024 and 2025.
I don’t know what it will require to fix it. Yet I think many Republicans are tired of being used for temporary gain only to watch the Democrats run circles around us as they invest in the necessary ecosystem — activists, news outlets, think tanks, polling firms — to capture hearts and minds. Republicans are a consultancy driven party; Democrats are built around coalitions. With differing definitions of success and reward, victory comes much more cheaply for Republicans than for Democrats.
When it comes, that is.
The Democrats can point back to 20 years of progress. Can we name a single Republican victory in Virginia on a policy issue of note over the last 20 years? That we were proud to run on and champion in front of voters?
I think most of us were just expecting more from the word victory rather than “came close!” or “but we kept the Democrats out of power!” or “gee — can’t wait until I land the next job at <insert lobbying interest here> in two years!” Certainly the Allen administration did not operate this way. Surely the Gilmore administration never functioned this way.
Just a tiny bit frustrated, as I’m sure we all are. But I’m right and you know it.
Here’s hoping for lessons learned moving into 2024 and 2025.
Shaun Kenney is former chairman of the Board of Supervisors for Fluvanna County and a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. This column has been republished from The Republican Standard with permission.