Glenn Youngkin, a Republican business executive, marched to victory in Tuesday’s election, delivering his party the governorship of Virginia and highlighting a strong night for Republicans less than a year after voters pushed them fully out of power in the nation’s capital.
The outcome in Virginia, combined with an unexpectedly close contest in New Jersey, where the governor’s race remained too close to call, delivered a jolt of encouragement for Republicans and a stark warning sign for the Democrats less than 10 months into President Biden’s term.
Mr. Biden’s approval rating has sagged to new lows as Democrats on Capitol Hill have struggled to coalesce behind his legislative agenda. The latest election results suggested an ominous erosion of the support in the suburbs that had put the party in power.
Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s contests and what the results could mean for 2022, when control of the House, Senate and 36 governorships will be on the ballot:
Youngkin’s success across the state offers a G.O.P. pathway.
Republicans suffered repeated down-ballot losses in the past four years, as the party grappled with how to motivate a base deeply yoked to Donald J. Trump without alienating the suburban voters who came to reject the former president’s divisive style of politics.
Enter Glenn Youngkin and his fleece vest.
Mr. Youngkin pulled off something of a surprise and rare feat: He drove up the Republican margins in white and rural parts of the state further than Mr. Trump had, cutting into the edge of the Democratic nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in suburban areas. He even flipped some key counties entirely.
Mr. Youngkin won in Chesterfield County, outside of Richmond, and Stafford County, an exurb of Washington, D.C., both places that Mr. Biden carried in 2020.
And in conservative southwestern Virginia, Mr. Youngkin was topping 80 percent in heavily white and rural counties — up substantially from the Republican showing in the last governor’s race.
Mr. Youngkin had campaigned heavily on education and seized on Mr. McAuliffe’s remark that he didn’t “believe parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Mr. Youngkin used the comment, made during a debate, as an entryway to hammer his rival on issues like race and transgender rights in schools. The issues simultaneously motivated the G.O.P. base while casting the matter to moderates as an issue of parental rights.
“This is no longer a campaign,” Mr. Youngkin said. “It is a movement being led by Virginia’s parents.”
Republican strategists were downright gleeful about the possibility of repackaging Mr. Trump’s policies without his personality.
All politics are presidential. But Biden loomed larger than Trump.
To the extent that the Youngkin victory provided a fresh G.O.P. blueprint, the surprisingly strong showing in New Jersey by the Republican candidate, Jack Ciattarelli, who was virtually tied with Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, made plain that the political environment had seriously degraded for Democrats nationally.
A national NBC News poll in late October showed that 45 percent of registered voters approved of the job Mr. Biden was doing, compared with 52 percent who disapproved. Perhaps as ominous was the intensity gap: Far more voters strongly disapproved of Mr. Biden (44 percent) than strongly approved (19 percent).
Such diminished standing offered Republicans an opportunity even in traditionally blue territory.
In Virginia, the McAuliffe campaign had relentlessly tried to make the race about Trump, Trump, Trump — in its television ads and on the stump.
That represented quite the reversal from when Democrats took back the House in 2018. Then, party strategists warned candidates to talk about issues, not Mr. Trump. But with him out of office, the McAuliffe team believed he needed to draw in Mr. Trump more explicitly.
It didn’t work.
“We’ve never had an election about a former president,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist who works on Virginia campaigns. He noted that more than 10,000 ads had tried to link Mr. Trump and Mr. Youngkin. “Current elections are about the current president,” Mr. Todd said.
Strategists in both parties said that the Virginia race was heavily shaped by Mr. Biden’s falling approval rating, and that the downward Democratic trajectory had begun when the president stumbled through the troubled pullout of American troops from Afghanistan.
Mr. McAuliffe and the Democrats never recovered.
Despite Democratic efforts to goad Mr. Trump into visiting the state, he never did so, allowing Mr. Youngkin to create some political distance — and to remain unencumbered by Mr. Trump’s usual demands of public fealty.
Some Republicans credited Susie Wiles, who is now overseeing Mr. Trump’s political operation, for helping guide Mr. Trump toward the approach. Others half-jokingly credited the social media platforms that banished Mr. Trump this year, muffling the impact and curtailing the frequency of his musings.
The G.O.P. margins make it even more worrisome for Democrats in 2022.
The headline, of course, is that Mr. Youngkin won. But for political strategists focused on the midterms in 2022, his final margin — and specifics about where his campaign excelled and Mr. McAuliffe underperformed — is every bit as revealing about the trajectory of the two parties.
Think of it this way: Because Mr. Biden carried Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020, a Youngkin victory represents a Republican improvement of more than 10 percentage points in exactly one year.
That is a lot — even knowing Virginia’s history of delivering its governorship to the party out of power in the White House.
Just as worrisome for the Democrats is that of the 36 governorships up for grabs in 2022, eight are now held by Democrats in states that had a smaller Democratic margin of victory in 2020 than Virginia, according to an election memo for donors from the Republican Governors Association. That list includes three of the most crucial presidential battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The picture in the House is just as bleak for Democrats.
Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster, noted that if a roughly 10-point swing — about the gain Mr. Youngkin needed to win in Virginia — were applied to the 2020 House results in districts nationwide, Republicans would have picked up 38 House seats.
Strategists in both parties said that unless the political environment improved for Democrats, they were at risk of losing both the House and Senate in 2022.
“This election is a warning for all Democrats,” declared Guy Cecil, who leads one of the party’s largest super PACs.
There were other weak down-ballot results for the party on Tuesday.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican candidate won a Supreme Court seat in a state Mr. Biden won. In Ohio, Mike Carey, a Republican, won the 15th Congressional District and was leading by more than Mr. Trump carried that district in 2020. And in the New York City suburbs on Long Island, a Republican was handily beating the incumbent Democratic district attorney in Suffolk County. In nearby Nassau County, Republicans led the races for district attorney and county executive.
The political middle still matters.
The American electorate is increasingly polarized, and a shrinking sliver of voters oscillates between the two major parties. But those voters still matter. For every vote that flips to the other side, a campaign must find two new voters to make up for the lost ground.
For years, it was the Democrats in Virginia who were obsessed with cutting into the margins in Republican strongholds and the suburbs.
Mark Warner, now a senator, famously slapped his name on the side of a NASCAR truck when he ran for governor as a Democrat in 2001. Tim Kaine, the state’s other senator, ran radio ads in his 2005 bid for governor that touted his work as a “former Christian missionary” and his support of abortion restrictions. Even Mr. McAuliffe himself ran in 2013 as a jobs-obsessed economic moderate who thanked the “historic number of Republicans who crossed party lines” to vote for him.
Yet in 2021, Mr. McAuliffe ran as a mainline Democrat. He deployed Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams in a bid to rally his party’s partisan faithful.
If Mr. McAuliffe was seemingly singularly obsessed with his base, the Youngkin campaign homed in on an issue that Democrats typically dominate: education. That focus helped him make incursions into Democratic territory.
The emphasis wasn’t just rhetorical. Mr. Youngkin’s two most frequently aired general election television ads were about schools and specifically Mr. McAuliffe’s debate remark. Those ads represented a full 28 percent of his total airings for the entire campaign, according to an analysis by AdImpact, a media-tracking firm.
Democratic ideological factions face off in cities.
Several municipal races pitted the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. The contests offered mixed results.
In Buffalo, India Walton, who was seeking to become a rare democratic socialist elected to a mayoralty, was trailing the write-in campaign led by Mayor Byron Brown, whom she had defeated in the Democratic primary.
In Minneapolis, voters rejected an amendment to transform the city’s Police Department into a new Department of Public Safety. At the same time, the city’s moderate Democratic incumbent mayor, Jacob Frey, held a significant advantage after the first round of ranked-choice voting.
In Seattle, Bruce Harrell, a former City Council president, was leading his more progressive rival, Lorena González.
The left did score some wins. In Boston, Michelle Wu, who was running with the backing of progressives, won the mayor’s race. And in Cleveland, Justin Bibb, a 34-year-old with progressive backing, is set to become mayor as well.