Opinion

Don't count on a GOP wave in November — yet

In American politics these days, it doesn't take long for yesterday's hero to find themselves in today's hot seat. That seems to be the case for Virginia's recently elected Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. New polling out of Virginia shows how fickle voters are right now — understandable, given how much there is to be upset about. But it also makes clear that nothing is yet settled when it comes to the fall's midterm elections.

Last November, Youngkin rode a wave of voter resentment into office. Now, not yet six weeks into his term, Youngkin is already underwater with Virginia voters, according to data released earlier this week.

On Monday, a poll from Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Civic Leadership showed Youngkin with a 43 percent disapproval rating for his job performance, so far, compared to 41 percent of Virginia voters who approved and 16 percent who said they weren't sure.

A conservative Republican, Youngkin focused his campaign last year on education issues, specifically running against COVID-19 regulations in public schools and claiming, wrongly, that critical race theory was being taught in classrooms throughout the state. When he won with almost 51 percent of the vote, Republicans touted Youngkin as a rising national star for the party, and also a clear sign that Americans were rejecting Democratic policies.

National media promoted that narrative too. Given Virginia's rather solidly-blue status of late,  especially in national elections — the state hasn't backed a Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush's re-election bid in 2004 — political pundits treated Youngkin's win as proof positive that Democrats across the country were sure to face a bloodbath in the 2022 midterm elections.

Yet the quick turnaround on Youngkin by Virginia's voters should give pause to those projections.

In his election night victory speech, Youngkin promised that Virginia schools would have "a curriculum that includes listening to parents."

He ought to listen to voters now. On his first day in office, Youngkin issued two executive orders, one banning critical race theory in Virginia's schools and the other banning school boards from issuing mask mandates. Both have backfired with the state's voters. As the Wason poll found, 57 percent oppose a ban on teaching critical race theory in schools. Even more — 63 percent – said they supported school lessons that teach about racism's ongoing impact on American life. And on the question of masks in public schools, 56 percent wanted mask requirements to be determined by health data versus 41 percent who said it should be left to parents to decide.

Such findings suggest that it wasn't last year's election in Virginia that's the bellwether for the 2022 midterms as much as it is the unfolding political developments there and elsewhere that will better foretell how voters act this November. Shifting scenarios with the economy, including gas prices and the inflation rate, along with local responses to the rapidly changing state of the pandemic, plus general feelings about the overall strength of the nation are all things that could fluctuate wildly between now and November and should more likely influence the midterm's outcomes. 

Digging further into this week's numbers out of Virginia offers additional takeaways. Overwhelmingly, Virginia voters' response to Youngkin's performance as governor broke along partisan lines. Eighty percent of the state's Republican voters agreed that Virginia was headed in the right direction compared to only 22 percent of Democrats. Regarding Youngkin's job performance, 85 percent of Republicans expressed approval while 81 percent of Democrats said they disapproved.

Given our hyper-polarized moment, those numbers aren't surprising. Yet these results also seem to indicate that COVID regulations, including school closures, may not have rearranged voter affiliation as much as it was once thought they might. Instead, as Rachel M. Cohen recently pointed out in the New Republic after reviewing the results of numerous surveys, "voters — particularly Democrats and independents — are not holding Democrats responsible for last year's school closures."

None of this means that Democrats shouldn't worry about the midterms nor that Republicans can count on easy victories. Indeed, the Wason poll had even worse news for President Biden. Of those polled, only 22 percent said the country was headed in the right direction, and 57 percent said they disapproved of the president's performance. Just a year ago, Biden enjoyed a 57 percent approval rating in the state, mere months after he had won Virginia in the 2020 election with over 54 percent of the vote.

Overall, the evidence in Virginia and elsewhere looks like bad news for incumbents everywhere. Yet, it also shows how quickly voters can change their minds, how much their votes are responses to present circumstances, and how deeply most voters remain attached to their party affiliations.

Those may seem like conflicting statements, but taken together they serve to reinforce the general rule that voter turnout is what determines elections. Whether Democratic apathy or Republican rage will be the deciding factor in November is yet to be known. But considering all that could happen from now until then only underscores the fact that 2022's midterm results are far from written in stone.

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