Republican Glenn Youngkin has won the race for Virginia governor, NBC News projects, defeating Terry McAuliffe in a race that’s been watched around the nation as a bellwether for the 2022 midterm elections.
The win is a major political turnabout in a state that had been trending increasingly blue. Republicans had not won a statewide race since 2009 when Bob McDonnell was elected governor. The GOP swept all three statewide races this election.
“Together we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth,” Youngkin said at campaign headquarters early Wednesday morning. “And friends, we are going to start that transformation on day one. There is no time to waste. Our kids can’t wait. We work in real people time, not government time.”
“On day one we’re going to work,” he said. “We’re going to restore excellence in our schools. We will invest the largest education budget in the history of the commonwealth. We’re going to invest in teachers, new facilities, special education. We’re going to introduce choice within our public school system.”
NBC News also projects Republican Winsome Sears defeated Democrat Hala Ayala in the lieutenant governor's race. She'll become the first woman as well as the first woman of color to serve in the post.
NBC News also projected Republican Jason Miyares, a delegate from Virginia Beach, to win the attorney general's race. Democrat Mark Herring had sought a third term.
More than 1.1 million votes were cast early in Virginia in the 2021 race, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
In Fairfax County, there were still about 20,000 votes to be added to a batch of early vote totals as of about 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Thumb drives that record the votes malfunctioned in voting machines used at four early voting sites — the county government center, Springfield, Tysons and Mt. Vernon. Paper ballots from those machines needed to be rescanned.
"Let's count all these votes," McAuliffe said from campaign headquarters Tuesday night.
More than 130,000 early in-person votes were reported before 8 p.m., a county spokesman said.
Absentee ballots will be accepted until noon Friday if they were postmarked by Tuesday.
Barely 12 months after President Joe Biden captured the state by 10 points, the governor's race was supposed to be a comfortable win for Democrats. Instead, McAuliffe, a prominent figure in Democratic politics and a former Virginia governor, got locked in a tight race with former business executive Youngkin as he tried to reclaim the post.
McAuliffe's campaign noted he ran in a tough environment for any Democrat, as Biden's approval numbers have slouched amid a stalemate over his economic agenda in Congress, his pullout from Afghanistan, rising inflation and the persistence of the coronavirus.
“We’ve got to make sure we protect a woman’s right to choose here in the commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said Tuesday night at his campaign event in Fairfax County. “We’ve got to make sure everybody gets affordable, quality health care here in the commonwealth of Virginia. Everybody’s entitled to a world class education here in the commonwealth of Virginia, and we are continuing that fight tonight and every day going forward.”
About half of Virginia early and Election Day voters said Biden was not a factor in their vote for governor, according to NBC News exit poll results. Forty-nine percent said Biden was not a factor, 28% said one reason for their vote for governor was to express opposition to Biden, and 20% said one reason for their vote was to express support for the president.
The bruising campaign centered on issues including Youngkin's ties to former President Donald Trump, the future of abortion rights and culture war battles over schools.
According to NBC News exit poll results, 33% of voters said the economy/jobs was the most important issue, 24% selected education as the most important issue facing the state, followed by taxes (16%), coronavirus (13%) and abortion (9%).
According to NBC News exit polling, 54% of Virginia governor voters said they have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Forty-one percent said they have a favorable view of the former president. Among McAuliffe voters, 94% said they have an unfavorable view of Trump and only 3% view him favorably. Among Youngkin voters, 73% have a favorable opinion of Trump but 21% have an unfavorable opinion of him.
During his campaign, Youngkin avoided being seen with Trump and other national GOP leaders.
Voting proceeded largely without incident across Virginia Tuesday. McAuliffe and Youngkin were mostly out of sight ahead of election night parties planned in the critical Northern Virginia suburbs that each campaign was counting on.
Education, abortion and climate change were issues dominating the election for some voters News4 spoke with in Fairfax County Tuesday afternoon.
"I'm very concerned about reproductive rights, especially with things that are in the docket for the Supreme Court to decide on … and what's going on in Texas. I wouldn't want to see something like that happen in Virginia," said one woman voting for McAuliffe.
"I'm looking for parents' rights and freedoms with the children so that they can have
the input that they need to make sure the children are raised the way they want them to be," a woman supporting Youngkin said.
"If we are not focused on climate change now, when we have the ability to change things, then it's going to be too late," McAuliffe supporter Christopher Weir said.
Another voter said the Democratic control of the General Assembly is what motivated his vote.
"I just think that we need to remain a conservative state, to be honest, and I don't like the way that the liberals are changing this country," Youngkin supporter John Amatetti said.
The majority of voters News4 spoke with at a polling place in Chantilly said education was their primary reasoning for coming out to vote.
One woman said Republicans have made too big of a case about critical race theory, which isn't taught in Virginia schools.
“It’s just been a turbulent couple of years anyway. Emotions are high. people want to get their voices out there, and they’re going to do it however they can,” one voter said.
In Norfolk, 29-year-old Cassandra Ogren told the Associated Press she voted for McAuliffe in part because of his support for abortion rights and her concern about restrictions recently enacted in Texas, where a new law mostly bans the procedure. But she was also motivated by Youngkin’s ties to Trump.
“Anyone endorsed by President Trump is not someone I want representing me,” Ogren said.
With school issues being important to many voters, Youngkin pledged to ensure parents have greater say in what their kids are taught was a centerpiece of his campaign — possibly foreshadowing similar arguments GOP candidates will use across the country next year.
Youngkin has decried school efforts to teach about institutional racism in society. That push intensified after McAuliffe said during a debate that "I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Bennett White, 24, a Youngkin voter in Norfolk, said he didn't want “our next generation of leaders to be looking at their peers in the lens of race."
“I just want to make sure that my mom is safe in the classroom," said White whose mother is a teacher, "and that her ideals and everyone’s ideals are protected, and we’re not turning into brainwashing academies.”
In 2009, during President Barack Obama's first year in office, Republican Bob McDonnell's victory in Virginia previewed a disastrous midterm cycle for Democrats, who lost more than 60 House seats the following year.
But McAuliffe won the governorship in 2013, a year after Obama was reelected, marking the only time the state has picked a governor from the sitting president’s party since 1976.
Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms. Only two governors since 1830 have been elected to additional terms: William Smith in 1846 and 1864 and Mills Godwin in 1966 and 1974.
The election results are not official until the Board of Elections meets to certify them Nov. 15.