Political Hindsight: Leaders of Youngkin, McAuliffe Campaigns Take the Stage at Mason

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Three people on a stage in front of a blue sign.
Julie Carey, left, moderates the ‘After Virginia Votes’ panel, featuring Will Ritter, center, and Michael Halle. Photos by Shelby Burgess/Creative Services
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Will Ritter: Youngkin’s campaign did not ‘jump on a gaffe’ by McAuliffe.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin’s successful campaign was “a slow march up” while Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe’s was “a slow march down,” compounded by a miscalculation on issues that resonated with Virginia’s voters, said Will Ritter, Youngkin’s media strategist, during a public post-election examination called “After Virginia Votes.”

Ritter shared the stage at George Mason University’s Merten Hall Tuesday night with Michael Halle, senior advisor to McAuliffe, during the event, a production of the Richmond-based, nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) and hosted by Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

More than 1,000 viewers tuned in via live streams on GMU-TV, Facebook, and YouTube while 50 invited guests listened to the discussion in person, in accordance with Mason’s pandemic protocols. Cox Communications, one of the event’s sponsors, will re-broadcast the 90-minute event in select markets this week.

Flawlessly moderated by NBC4 Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey, the conversation between the upbeat Ritter and the understandably glum Halle provided insights to key moments in the bellwether, $100-million election that led to political newcomer Youngkin’s defeat of McAuliffe, who was running for a second term as governor, by 63,503 votes.

The conversation was followed by a second panel that included veteran Virginia political analysts Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University, and Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School.

Among other topics, Carey asked how national issues affected the state election, including the pandemic, the election of Joe Biden as president, the teaching of “critical race theory,” the January 6 insurrection, and the withdraw from Afghanistan. For his part, Youngkin, Ritter said, was adamant about keeping the issues local while McAuliffe’s camp continually attempted to attach Youngkin to Donald Trump and the extremist wing of the Republican Party.

Three people discuss politics on a stage.
Schar School Dean Mark J. Rozell makes a point during a discussion with Julie Carey, left, and Christopher Newport University’s Quentin Kidd.

In particular, the local issue of education became a lightning rod following a heated September 28 debate in Alexandria, partially sponsored by the Schar School, in which McAuliffe suggested, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Until then, a Washington Post/Schar School poll showed McAuliffe with a slight lead, 50 percent to 47 percent.

Ritter said his campaign did not “jump on a gaffe” but the line crystalized the direction to domestic issues. “We had a choice to make and we chose to run on Virginia issues,” he said. “We predicted McAuliffe would ‘nationalize’ the race, we anticipated the celebrity endorsements, but we decided to stick with Virginia issues.”

In the end, Ritter said, “We had a secret weapon. We had Glenn.”

Kidd and Rozell, both of whom had been writing about and commenting on the election in the press for months, provided additional insight regarding what Youngkin’s election might mean to the Commonwealth.

“As a new governor, you want some early wins” in the state house, Kidd said, suggesting Youngkin is likely to focus on what Rozell called “kitchen table issues, bread and butter issues,” such as his promise to eliminate sales tax on groceries, lower the gas tax, and raise teacher salaries.

State appointments made by the new governor, Rozell said, might be designed to “appease Trump supporters.”

Youngkin will be sworn in as 74th governor on January 15, 2022.