This week, Virginia Republicans Glenn Youngkin, Winsome Sears, and Jason Miyares swept the governorship and statewide row offices, and Republicans appear to have retaken control of the lower house of the Virginia General Assembly.
For union bosses in the state, this is an unmitigated disaster. The increasing Democratic tilt of the state had led Democratic nominee (and former Gov.) Terry McAuliffe to lay out an ambitious agenda rewarding union bosses who backed his campaign.
For workers, students, and the public, McAuliffe’s and Big Labor’s loss is a great victory.
There for the Taking
Until 2006, Virginia was presumed to be a federally “red” state despite electing Democratic governors when Republicans held the presidency. But that year, Democrat Jim Webb unseated Sen. George Allen (R-VA) by 9,000 votes out of 2.3 million cast in the midterm election wave that then-President George W. Bush characterized as a “thumpin.”
Since that time, except for the 2009 state-level elections that Republicans swept, Democrats have won every statewide election. President Barack Obama carried the state twice, former U.S. Senator John Warner (R-VA) retired and was replaced by former Democratic Gov. Mark Warner (D-VA), former Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA) succeeded Sen. Webb, and Democrats won statewide sweeps in the 2013 and 2017 elections. In 2019, Democrats finally broke Republican control of the state legislature. Most assumed the state had turned firmly “blue,” especially after President Joe Biden and Sen. Warner won double-digit victories in 2020.
Virginia had become the prototypical “new blue” state over the 2006–2020 period. Its high concentration of educated voters, the growth of federal and federal-contractor employment, and ethnic diversity had presumptively taken the state out of play for Republicans. But because of how slowly the Democrats had advanced in the legislature, many dead hands of the late “red Virginia” remained in state policy. Labor policy had some of the strongest. The state only began recognizing any collective bargaining for government workers in early 2021, and Virginia’s right-to-work law remained in force.
During his 2014–2018 governorship, McAuliffe had not meddled with Virginia’s labor laws, including the right-to-work protections against unwilling workers funding union activities, in part because of the Republican-controlled legislature. But armed with a near-certain gubernatorial-legislative “trifecta” and continued control of the state attorney general’s office, McAuliffe said in his 2021 campaign he would sign a repeal of the right-to-work law. He also endorsed the SEIU-backed “fight for $15” minimum wage hikes, mandatory paid sick leave, and a further expansion of government-worker mandatory bargaining. His commitment to teachers unions’ positions on education—strict COVID regulations and mandates and ideologically charged teaching—was so complete that Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), headlined McAuliffe’s night-before-election final rally.
Pushing Big Labor’s agenda brought more than Weingarten’s presence to McAuliffe’s campaign. Big Labor put millions of dollars behind him and the other state Democrats. Between his support of repealing right to work and mid-July, Big Labor put $2.2 million behind McAuliffe.
In total, the Virginia Public Access Project reported McAuliffe disclosed over $7.3 million in contributions from organized labor. Weingarten’s AFT contributed $275,000. The National Education Association, the other national teachers union, contributed $400,000. Even as education policy and ideologically charged teaching became core issues in the campaign, the teachers unions war chests for McAuliffe were outspent by several other trade unions, including Unite Here, the Laborers, AFSCME, and the SEIU.
Election Night Flop
Then, Virginia voted. A massive, nearly uniform 12-point statewide swing from the 2020 presidential election washed away millions in Big Labor cash and millions more from other liberal special interest groups, including the state League of Conservation Voters, Mike Bloomberg’sNextGen Climate Independence USA PAC, Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, and Planned Parenthood.
Youngkin’s campaign proudly supported right to work, condemned teachers unions’ COVID-related school shutdowns, denounced and vowed to ban ideologically charged “critical race theory” teaching, proposed school choice programs, and opposed “job-killing regulations” like a mandate for paid leave.
Virginia, which had been on the cusp of following neighbors like Maryland into rule by Big Labor, dodged a bullet.