A Republican candidate has been elected the governor of Virginia, according to US television networks, in a setback for Democrats ahead of next year’s nationwide congressional elections.
US media outlets CNN and NBC projected early on Wednesday that Glenn Youngkin had won the gubernatorial race.
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A former private equity executive who has never held elected office, Youngkin sold himself as a political outsider while seeking to rally suburban voters around hot-button issues like how to handle the discussion of racism in schools and COVID-19 mask mandates in classrooms.
The 54-year-old surged in the polls in the weeks leading up to the election, closing his gap with former Governor Terry McAuliffe by gaining ground with independents and women voters.
Those groups proved essential to Youngkin’s victory in a southern state that has trended Democratic in the past several years. Former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Youngkin, lost Virginia in his 2020 presidential re-election bid by 10 percentage points.
As the race was called at around 12:45am local time, Youngkin spoke to cheering supporters in a hotel ballroom in Chantilly, about 25 miles west of Washington DC.
“Together we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth,” he declared.
The outcome in the governor’s contest is widely seen as a barometer of the country’s political direction heading into the 2022 midterm races, which will decide control of the US Congress – and with it, the future of President Joe Biden’s policy agenda.
Youngkin will succeed outgoing Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat. Under Virginia state law, governors cannot serve consecutive terms. McAuliffe, 64, served as governor from 2014 to 2018.
McAuliffe had sought to tie Youngkin to Trump at every turn. His loss may signal that Democrats cannot bank on running against the former president when he is not at the top of the ballot.
The contest between Youngkin and McAuliffe focused heavily on political culture wars.
Youngkin declared himself an advocate for parents who want to have a say in school curriculums, a message designed to appeal specifically to suburban voters, for whom education is an important issue.
He leaned into the Republican Party’s expressions of outrage over the discussion of systemic racism in schools. He promised to ban the teaching of “critical race theory”, a legal framework that examines how racism shapes US laws and policies, ignoring the fact that Virginia schools do not teach the subject.
Youngkin’s agenda also centred on issues that Republicans anticipate will drive voter turnout in 2022, such as public safety, election integrity and freedom from COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates.
Youngkin drew sharp criticism from Democrats when he initially hesitated to denounce Trump’s insistence that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him, false claims that have continued to rile his supporters and led to a mob of Trump supporters attacking the US Capitol on January 6.
Youngkin said later that Biden had won legitimately, but then called for an audit of Virginia’s voting machines, a move that prompted Democrats to accuse him of validating Trump’s election conspiracy theories.
In a series of statements, Trump took credit for Youngkin’s lead, thanking his “base” and adding: “Without you, he would not have been close to winning.”
The race is one of the numerous contests before American voters on Tuesday as they grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and rising consumer prices.
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