5 election takeaways: Race in education key in Virginia; a historic night for candidates of color

·6 min read

Polls have closed in a constellation of off-year elections that political observers said could offer clues about the themes and outcomes of the pivotal 2022 midterm races.

At the top of the card was the race for Virginia governor. Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the first major contest since President Joe Biden took office. The loss was a setback to Democrats one year before the midterms, which will decide control of Congress and affect Biden's ability to govern and pass legislation.

There also were congressional races in two Ohio districts and mayoral races in major cities such as Atlanta, Boston and New York.

All of this will play a role in how the major parties joust over next year's campaigns for control of Congress and several governor's mansions.

Here are five things to reflect upon after Tuesday's results.

Election Day updates: Youngkin takes Virginia; New Jersey too close to call

Critical race theory mobilizes Virginia voters

Voters across Virginia cited education, specifically concerns over critical race theory, as one of the reasons they cast a ballot in the gubernatorial race between McAuliffe and Youngkin.

Youngkin leaned into parents' anger over classroom curriculum during the final weeks of the campaign when his team and supporters criticized McAuliffe for comments he made Sept. 29 during a debate.

"I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," McAuliffe said.

Critical race theory is a legal framework that examines how systemic racism permeates the country's laws and society. Virginia public schools do not teach it in K-12 education.

Race and curriculum: Schools can teach full US history under critical race theory bans, experts say. Here's how

That hasn't stopped it from becoming a rallying cry among conservative activists that is likely to carry over into the GOP messaging to voters in 2022.

Walter Foreman, 23, said he backed Youngkin because of his plan to ban critical race theory.

"This election is about parents rising up and demanding what’s best for their kids,” said Foreman of Manassas, Virginia.

Retirees Bob and Judy Allen said they support Youngkin because they want parents to be able to object to curriculum that involves critical race theory.

"If my kids were to be educated right now, I wouldn’t put them in Fairfax County schools. I would probably home-school them," Judy Allen said.

McAuliffe called the battle over critical race theory a "racist dog whistle."

Retired public schoolteacher Mary Wagner said she switched from supporting the GOP to volunteering for the Democrats because of how the education issue played out in the race.

"I taught in the public schools for 39 years, and education is extremely important to me," she said. "If anybody is a good governor for this state for education, it would be Terry McAuliffe."

Critical race theory, or just race? Today's lesson is [REDACTED]. Is the GOP using critical race theory to ban discussion of race in schools?

Record turnout in Virginia

Interest in Virginia's gubernatorial race went beyond what the political prognosticators expected.

Voter turnout was higher than expected, especially among Republicans. ABC News estimated a vote total of 3.3 million. That far exceeds the 2.6 million votes cast in 2017 and the 2.2 million votes in 2013.

Tuesday, elections officials at Hugh Mercer Elementary School in Fredericksburg said they had to request a third stack of ballots from the General Registrar’s Office after voter turnout exceeded their expectations.

Kenneth Gantt, 61, who has volunteered at the polls in Fredericksburg for the past three election cycles, said he was surprised to see voter turnout similar to what he observed in the 2020 presidential election.

The Army veteran said voters in his community are typically elderly and tend to favor Republicans such as Youngkin.

"The folks who really care about the issues, they always come out to vote," Gantt said. "Where the influx comes is folks who have a real interest in some of the key issues of the governor’s race – the economy and our schools and the children.”

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Historic night for Black women, candidates of color

Several candidates of color fared well in statewide and mayoral races.

Virginia Republican Winsome Sears bested Democrat Hala Ayala, who identifies as Afro-Latina, to become the nation’s fourth Black female lieutenant governor.

Sears is the first woman of color to win statewide office in Virginia.

Down the ballot, Republican Jason Miyares defeated Democrat Mark Herring in his campaign to become the Old Dominion's first Cuban American attorney general.

In New York City, Democrat Eric Adams, who was widely expected to win, cruised to victory over Republican Curtis Sliwa. Adams, a retired police captain, will be the second Black mayor of America's largest city.

Democrat Ed Gainey will become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh after defeating Republican Tony Moreno.

Democrat Alvin Bragg defeated Republican Thomas Kenniff, becoming Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, a position that will oversee investigations over former President Donald Trump.

In Boston, Democrat Annissa Essaibi George conceded to fellow Democrat Michelle Wu, who became the first woman and first person of color elected as mayor of the city. Wu is Taiwanese American and was the first Asian American city councilor in Boston. Essaibi George is a Polish Arab American and is also a Boston city councilor.

Democrat Aftab Pureval, the son of a Tibetan mother and Indian father, defeated fellow Democrat David Mann in Cincinnati’s mayoral race. Pureval becomes the first Asian American elected to lead the city.

New York City Mayor Elect Eric Adams speaks to supporters Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in New York.
New York City Mayor Elect Eric Adams speaks to supporters Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in New York.

Disbanding Minneapolis police fails

Expect Democrats to sprint away from left-leaning activists' demands to defund or abolish law enforcement agencies before next year's midterm races.

Voters in Minneapolis rejected a referendum to replace the police department with a public safety agency that would have focused on mental health, civilian well-being and social services.

The proposed amendment came after high-profile killings of Black men by law enforcement. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison after being convicted for killing George Floyd.

Under the proposed change, which fiercely divided the community, power over the police department would have been split between the mayor and City Council. The amendment would have removed the requirement that the city have a minimum level of funding and staffing for the force.

Democrats did not have a good night

Youngkin's win in the Virginia gubernatorial race and the surprisingly close New Jersey gubernatorial race late Tuesday probably spell an uphill climb for Democrats in next year’s midterms. The races are an early indication of Democrats' struggle to win over suburbs in a post-Trump environment.

Jack Ciattarelli, a former member of the New Jersey General Assembly, exchanged leads with Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy in a race that was not called for Murphy until Wednesday evening. Biden carried New Jersey by 16 percentage points and Virginia by 10 percentage points last year.

McAuliffe declined to concede defeat to Youngkin during a speech to supporters Tuesday night. "We've still got a lot of votes to count," McAuliffe said. "We've got about 18% of the vote out, so we're going to continue to count the votes because every single Virginian deserves to have their vote counted."

Republicans could have momentum on their side as they try to retake control of Congress from the slim Democratic majority. Democrats have an eight-seat advantage in the House and control the split Senate. Republicans also have historical precedent and redistricting on their side moving into next year.

Contributing: Jay Shakur, Julia Mueller, Jeannie Michele Kopstein, Medill News Service

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In 2021 elections, race in education, public safety mobilized voters