Last week’s elections in Virginia were no earthquake. Glenn Youngkin, the newly elected Republican Governor, squeaked home by the narrowest of margins. The swing from blue to red was a modest five percent.
Yet last week’s election could just turn out to be one of the most significant elections in America for a generation. Why?
Virginia offers the wider conservative movement a route map back towards electoral success – if (big if) they have the good sense to follow it.
It is easy when living in a state like Mississippi to assume that the Republican party is well entrenched. The reality across much of America, however, is that the conservative movement which dominated American politics when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, has suffered defeat and retreat ever since.
The last time that a Republican candidate won a popular majority in a U.S. Presidential election, for example, was back in 2004. Republican candidates have only managed to win the popular vote in two of the past nine Presidential elections.
It is not just that Republican candidates have not done so well. Even more ominously, not every Republican candidate has been …. how might I put this delicately? …. conservative.
Over the past couple of decades, states like Virginia, which at one time tended to lean conservative, appeared to have shifted decisively to the left. Until last week, that is.
Despite having failed to win a state-wide election for twelve years, last week conservative candidates in Virginia were elected not only Governor, but Lt. Governor and Attorney General, too.
The Virginia result was a victory for school choice conservatism. With parents denied any real power in the public education system, moms and dads in Virginia felt anxious about some of the things their kids were being taught – such as Critical Race Theory.
Youngkin repeatedly made the issue of whether parents should be allowed a say in their child’s education the centerpiece in his campaign. Youngkin also calmly but firmly insisted that Critical Race Theory is wrong.
And guess what? It turns out that giving people school choice is wildly popular and that millions of ordinary Americans are not that keen on having their kids indoctrinated into believing that their country is intrinsically racists either.
Here in Mississippi, we recently published a report on Critical Race Theory in our state. It shows how conservatives might offer something similar here, too.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Virginia result was the record support that the conservative side got from both Hispanic and African America voters. It turns out that opposing a divisive anti-American ideology has a broad appeal. Again, Magnolia conservatives should take note.
One final observation about Virginia. The conservative side in the election did something that too often conservatives are loathed to do; they tried to understand and listen to their audience before trying to persuade them.
Too many of those that work in public policy presume that arguments that excite them appeal to everyone else. They don’t. In order to win in Virginia, conservative strategists used messages and messengers that resonated with the folk they needed to win over.
Instead of school choice, they talked about school freedom. Instead of attacking obstructive teacher unions, they made it clear that they wanted a better deal for teachers – if not necessarily union bosses.
It takes more than a bumper sticker to win over hearts and minds. A new conservative movement that understood this, while offering real school freedom and an alternative to critical race theory, could be unstoppable.
Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.