WASHINGTON – Democrats became the dominant political force in Virginia over the past decade, propelled by explosive growth in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the northern part of the state. The party won the governor’s office twice and took control of both chambers of the legislature in what had been a Republican stronghold.
Their grip weakened considerably in Tuesday's gubernatorial election.
The Associated Press declared Republican Glenn Youngkin the winner over Democrat Terry McAuliffe at 12:37 a.m. Wednesday. The AP called the race because Youngkin led McAuliffe by about 85,000 votes, and the former governor wasn’t winning in the counties with votes still left to count by enough of a margin to close that gap.
It's an outcome that was hard to imagine a year ago when President Joe Biden easily carried the state by 10 percentage points, a showing that built on Hillary Clinton's more than 5 percentage point win in 2016.
But Youngkin benefited from boosted turnout in rural, Republican-leaning areas in central and western parts of Virginia, where he took a larger share of the vote than Ed Gillespie, the losing Republican candidate for governor in 2017.
At the same time, McAuliffe's share of the vote in reliably Democratic northern Virginia was down significantly compared with recent elections, with McAuliffe carrying 68% of the vote there early Wednesday. Current Gov. Ralph Northam carried those same suburbs with 71% in 2017.
That dynamic was on particularly stark display in Loudoun County, which Biden won by 25 percentage points last year. Early Wednesday, McAuliffe was winning it by 10.5 percentage points.
Virginia was once solidly Republican, with President George W. Bush winning there as recently as 2004. But growth in the counties outside Washington has led to an influx of increasingly diverse and Democratic-leaning voters who helped shift the balance of power.
Tuesday’s results show the limitations of the region’s political influence.