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Republican Glenn Youngkin captures the governor's mansion in Virginia

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The man who won the governor's race in Virginia made a promise last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN YOUNGKIN: Together - together we will change the trajectory of this commonwealth.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Glenn Youngkin's victory represents a change in political trajectory already. Virginia had become ever more reliably blue in recent elections, with Democrats steadily overcoming the many advantages that Republicans had built up over the decades. And then last night, Republicans came back. They won the governor's race, along with some key legislative seats. Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost. And on the same evening in New Jersey, a state that's been blue a lot longer, another governor's race is too close to call. NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro is with us this morning. Domenico, good morning.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we're also joined by - he's the state political reporter at VPM in Richmond - Ben Paviour. Good morning to you.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Domenico, what do you make of this?

MONTANARO: The Virginia result was an upset in a state that's really trended Democratic over the past decade or so and that Biden won by 10 points last year in the presidential election. But Democrats were bracing for that possibility of a loss there; New Jersey, though not so much, so that's a pretty big deal. The two results really show that the Republican energy and anger over education, race, mask mandates, was real and was enough to turn out the conservative base voters, even without Trump on the ballot, which is a pretty big deal.

In New Jersey, property taxes are always the biggest issue because they're the highest in the country. Governor Phil Murphy had expanded the state income tax deduction for property taxes, but he didn't shy away from raising taxes on the wealthy in a state with one of the highest median incomes in the country. And that doesn't play great in wealthy suburbs. But both the results overall - real gut punch to the Democratic political establishment, which has had little good news over the past few months, a bad sign for the party as it hopes to retain control of Congress heading into next year.

INSKEEP: Ben, let's dig in on Virginia. We can look at these national trends, like Joe Biden's poll numbers, which may well have been a factor here. The national conversation may well have been a factor here. But it's a state race. How did Glenn Youngkin run that race in Virginia?

PAVIOUR: He touched on some familiar Republican ideas, like lowering taxes and supporting law enforcement. But a lot of Youngkin's closing message had to do with this idea that the state and school boards weren't listening to parents' concerns around education. He was really able to channel some of the conservative outcry we've seen at those contentious school board meetings...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

PAVIOUR: ...And take it to the ballot box. Youngkin painted this pretty bleak picture of classrooms where students are being divided up by race, made to feel like victims or oppressors. I'm not aware of any Virginia school districts where that is happening in any comprehensive way, but the state has been trying to make their curriculum more inclusive, given Virginia's history of racism. And the Legislature passed anti-bullying measures for transgender students. There's a sense among some parents that those efforts have gone too far.

INSKEEP: This is really interesting. So it's a very real debate where Youngkin came in and took a position that maybe took it to extremes. But it seems to have worked for him. How did McAuliffe try to counter that message?

PAVIOUR: McAuliffe calls Youngkin's rhetoric - and I'm quoting here - "a racist dog whistle." He says Youngkin is just trying to trap in - tap into Trump supporters and generate outrage over lessons that are trying to tell a more inclusive and fuller sense of history. Democrats have also pointed out that critical race theory, which Youngkin says he'll ban from schools on his first day in office, isn't actually taught in K-12 classrooms in Virginia, although conservatives say it helps inspire some diversity trainings for teachers.

But I think McAuliffe sometimes had trouble articulating a good answer on what role parents should play in education. At a debate in September, he said, quote, I don't think parents should be telling students - or telling schools what they should teach. And he was talking about a very specific bill that he vetoed when he was governor before that would have given parents the ability to tell teachers to replace certain books they objected to. But Youngkin turned around that clip and used it again and again in TV ads.

INSKEEP: And there were also TV ads that seemed to be discussing a Toni Morrison book and that sort of thing. Domenico, is this kind of an object lesson in how politics works? Youngkin was the person who set the agenda here. McAuliffe had to answer and didn't do it very well.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I mean, once McAuliffe went on the defensive about education, you could sort of see which direction the wind was blowing in this race. You know, and exit polls certainly backed up the notion that education shot up as an issue, and Youngkin was able to use that to do better, by the way, in every single county in the state, as compared to President Trump - former President Trump in 2020. You know, and despite McAuliffe's defense, this education issue really caught on like wildfire. It's the latest culture war issue. It's where all the energy is on the right. We've seen all these school board meetings overrun, frankly, this summer and become a huge, huge piece of this.

And, you know, Youngkin was able to sort of walk this line, you know, between this, you know, what McAuliffe called dog whistle politics to the Trump base and also presenting himself as somebody who was - had a softer side. And I think you're going to see a lot of Republicans try to emulate that in swing areas over the next year.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I was going back and forth yesterday with a Republican lawyer, and he's somebody who publicly had opposed Donald Trump, just could not stand it, could not go there. But he lives in Virginia, and he voted for Youngkin. He concluded that Youngkin was clear enough of all of that, that it was a possible new direction for the party.

MONTANARO: Yeah. Well, you know, look; the fact is, President Trump - you know, former President Trump is someone who Democrats tried to make a boogeyman in this race, and it just didn't work. You know, Virginia voters didn't buy into, at least all of them or enough to put McAuliffe over the top, that, you know, putting Youngkin in was going to be a clone of Trump. And I think that's a big warning sign for Democrats, even in Democratic-leaning states.

INSKEEP: A quick question for each of you. First, Domenico - what does this mean for national politics?

MONTANARO: Look; you never want to overread the results from one election, but with the results from New Jersey, too - you know, it's a place Biden won by 16 points in 2020. It's all a bad omen for Democrats in 2022. They're already facing an uphill battle to retain very slim congressional majorities. It's proof that also the demographics aren't necessarily destiny. Virginia has trended Democratic over the last decade or so, but, you know, both parties were able to turn out lots of voters, and, you know, you can't just chalk up how a state has trended to say that's how it's definitely going to vote.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah, the state has become much more diverse, but that has not automatically meant much more Democratic. Ben, didn't Republicans do very well in a lot of races besides the governor's race?

PAVIOUR: Yeah, I mean, touching on that diversity, unofficial results show they won all statewide races on a pretty diverse ticket. Jason Miyares, a state lawmaker, will be the state's first Latino attorney general. Winsome Sears, who is a former state delegate, will also be the first woman of color to be elected lieutenant governor. The GOP also appeared to flip control of Virginia's House of Delegates. Democrats still narrowly control the state Senate, which isn't up for election until 2023. So Republicans have the momentum in Virginia, but they're going to have to negotiate with Democrats to pass any of their priorities, things like lowering taxes and changing voting rules.

INSKEEP: Ben Paviour of VPM in Richmond and Domenico Montanaro of NPR. Thanks to you both.

MONTANARO: You're welcome, Steve.

PAVIOUR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.