Nov 1, 2021 - Politics & Policy

The county that could decide Virginia's governor race

Data: Virginia Department of Elections; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

With massive stakes for both parties in tomorrow's Virginia governor's race, the one place to watch — both to forecast the result and understand the outcome — is Loudoun County.

Why it matters: Loudoun (the second "u" is silent), about 40 miles outside D.C., reflects national and state demographic trends. And it's ground zero for cultural battles that have given Republican Glenn Youngkin last-mile momentum against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

Zoom out: Democratic candidates in Virginia long relied on running up the vote in cities and fast-growing suburbs to win statewide.

  • Loudoun County was once a sleepy Washington exurb. Then its population more than doubled in 20 years along a booming tech corridor, a diversifying area key to Democratic success in the Old Dominion.

What's happening: Loudoun captured the national spotlight over controversies in its public school system, with Fox News showing heated-school board fights over masks and instruction on race.

  • Republicans believe that has helped Youngkin — once the underdog and now neck and neck with McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor — chip away at the blue wall.
  • Even if Youngkin wins the race, he'll probably lose Loudoun. But insiders are watching how much he can reverse the big gains Dems have made in the county in the past three major elections.

In other words: All roads in this race lead to Loudoun.

  • It's the wealthiest county in the U.S. (median income: $142,000).
  • It has been Virginia's fastest growing county over the past decade, and is now the fourth largest.
  • That growth has been pushing the county blue, with Dems taking control of the county board of supervisors in 2019 and Biden decisively beating Trump there last year.
  • But many of these people are parents with children in the public schools (28% of the county's population is under 18) who are being drawn into culture wars not just around COVID precautions but around teenage gender identity, and how lessons involving race are taught.
  • Loudoun's population is two-thirds white, 20% Asian-American and 8% African-American.

Between the lines: Democrats say Youngkin is pouring kerosene on divisive culture war issues. The Republican has declared he'd ban teaching of critical race theory, and seized on a sexual assault case that allegedly occurred in a Loudoun high school bathroom.

  • It’s unclear how much that tumult will matter. But education suddenly shot up as the third, after the economy and COVID, as a top campaign issue in a Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Congressman Don Beyer, a Democrat from Alexandria, told Axios he doesn't think the race will be decided by conservatives' case on how race is taught.

  • "I think the people that it's catching on with were never going to be our voters to begin with," Beyer said after a rally for McAuliffe in Alexandria on Friday.

But Youngkin told reporters Saturday after a rally at a farmers' market in deep-blue Alexandria, where his supporters spilled into the street and took up a lane of traffic:

  • "We’re going to make some really surprising gains across the commonwealth."

The bottom line: Loudoun = all the trends.

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