In Maya Castillo’s Mexican American household, tracking election mail is an instructive game. The liberal political strategist says that often, it’s her white husband, not herself, getting appeals from left-leaning candidates at their Northern Virginia home.
“This year I saw that dynamic play out, except for a brand-new thing: We were both getting mail and door knocks from the [Glenn] Youngkin campaign,” said Castillo, who works for New Virginia Majority, a political group that advocates for working class people of color.
“Because I work in this space, every single year I’m trying to figure out, who are they talking to? The Youngkin campaign and the Republican Party were very specifically targeting the voters that Democrats sometimes take for granted.”
As Democrats triage their stunning election defeat in Virginia, advocates and strategists aligned with the left are placing some of the fault — starting at the top of the ticket — with what they term lagging outreach by the party to voters of color, despite counting Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters among their core base of support.
Groups that advocate for the particular interests of Black, Hispanic and Asian American Virginians say lagging, late-stage engagement by Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign and the party’s statewide coordinated campaign came amid unusual overtures by the Republican’s camp.
Democrats still overwhelmingly attracted support from Black voters and Asian American voters, according to preliminary data from exit polls. Most suggest Democrats also had an edge among Hispanic voters, but by a narrower gap.
At 55%, Virginia saw its highest percentage turnout in a contest for governor since 1993, and that included major increases in turnout among Black and Hispanic voters as well as rural voters, compared with the 2017 contest for governor, which had a turnout of 47.6%.
McAuliffe benefited from an increase in turnout among Black voters, who swung for him at a rate of 86% — one percentage point less than they did for Democrat Ralph Northam in his 2017 win for governor.
That wasn’t enough to overcome a surge in Youngkin’s support in rural parts of the state, gains among white voters in the suburbs, and what appear to be marginal gains among Latinos.
Gauging Youngkin’s support among Latinos remains difficult due to a lack of data and conflicting projections. An exit poll from The Associated Press found that Youngkin had attracted 55% of support among Latinos, while results from Edison Research’s National Election Pool used by The Washington Post and major TV networks found McAuliffe had won 66% of the support from that group. (Northam had received 67% of that vote in 2017.)
McAuliffe had 67% support among Asian Americans according to Edison’s poll, an improvement over Joe Biden’s 60% rate in 2020.
For a consequential race that was decided at the margins amid unusually high turnout, liberal activists and advocates for people of color say improving Democrats’ outreach to voters of color should become a bigger priority among candidates and party leaders before the next election.
Depending on the outcome of a legal challenge related to redistricting, Virginians could again face elections next year for the House of Delegates, where Republicans beat seven Democratic incumbents to win the majority. The state will be led by three Republicans, starting with Youngkin, who won by a margin of 1.93%.
Representatives of the McAuliffe campaign and the Democratic Party of Virginia said the party’s fate in the election had more to do with a national political environment that was not favorable to Democrats nearly anywhere elections were held Nov. 2. They argued that the McAuliffe campaign’s overtures to voters of color were focused and consistent through the cycle, and pushed back on criticisms that the campaign had made glaring missteps in its outreach.
The campaign cited in-person appearances; paid media buys in African American, Hispanic and Korean media outlets; diverse staffing within the campaign; and partnerships with advocacy groups. All told, the McAuliffe campaign says it spent $10 million to engage and turn out voters of color.
“I could not be more proud of the work our campaign did to reach out to and lift up communities of color in every corner of the commonwealth,” said Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and a co-chair of the McAuliffe campaign.
Organizers on the ground said that while outreach did take place, it didn’t start early enough, and couldn’t match the turnout by voters in the GOP base, including rural voters.
“When the barriers are so high for our folks to come and enthusiasm is low, while there are no barriers to our opponents, that’s how we lose,” said Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia director for Care in Action, an advocacy group for domestic workers that ran a field program to urge turnout among Black and immigrant voters.
“If you just lost your loved one, are providing care for someone in your household, have picked up an extra job, it’ll be hard for you to participate,” said Rodgers, a 2020 candidate for mayor of Richmond. “That’s why we’re focused on making sure that our folks don’t just get a reminder the week before. That’s not enough.”
Nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed that Democrats came up short in their field organizing efforts, like door-to-door canvassing, particularly in a contest as close as Virginia’s race for governor.
“By September, it became clear the field was not covered. Particularly in areas with a high concentration of Black voters, including Richmond, which I thought was deeply problematic,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of Black PAC, which has done engagement and get-out-the-vote efforts in Virginia since 2017.
“I realized thousands and thousands of doors were going to go unknocked.”
As voting day neared, many voters hadn’t been reached.
“Normally there would have been more outreach, and there just simply wasn’t,” said Da’Quan Love, the executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, which did not endorse in the race but instead focused on turnout.
“I, personally, got on the phone toward the end and folks would say, ‘I don’t know these people.’ I’m sure that for a white voter in Loudoun County, that wouldn’t be the case.”
Love noted that neither the McAuliffe nor Youngkin campaigns nor party organizations participated in the NAACP’s convention in October, unlike in past years.
Sookyung Oh, the Virginia director of the NAKASEC Action Fund, which works to engage Asian American voters, said she was satisfied by what she called impressive turnout among Asian American voters, but noted what appeared to be a lack of direct outreach to these voters by the McAuliffe campaign. (NAKASEC stands for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium.)
“We did three rounds of canvassing. It was interesting that even by the third time we talked to a house, we were still hearing from [Asian American and Pacific Islander] voters that they had not been contacted by the McAuliffe campaign,” she said. “That definitely raises a red flag. You don’t want to get to a third pass — in mid-October — and a voter says they haven’t heard from you.”
Scrutiny of Democrats’ outreach to voters of color came amid what some advocates and strategists described as unusual and unexpected engagement by the Youngkin campaign.
For starters, canvassers working on behalf of Democrats to reach out to voters of color started noticing a trail of Youngkin flyers at doors they didn’t expect the candidate to canvass. Some of those flyers were translated into Spanish, or Asian languages, like Korean and Vietnamese. It raised eyebrows, both because it was coming from a statewide Republican candidate, and because Democrats weren’t doing it.
Youngkin’s campaign later confirmed that it had translated campaign flyers and bumper stickers to 12 languages, relying on survey data that suggested these demographic groups were “movable.”
“They all have different periodicals in their language, so we advertised in those periodicals. Don’t assume that votes are off-limits. That’s one lesson from this,” said Youngkin campaign strategist Jeff Roe in an interview with Politico. “We prescriptively went out to seek those votes.”
Some of that work was more aggressive. One flyer sent by the Republican Party of Virginia and authorized by the Youngkin campaign featured comments critical of McAuliffe by former Gov. Doug Wilder, the nation’s first elected Black governor.
“Former Governor Douglas Wilder says that Terry McAuliffe blocked Black candidates from moving up in the Democratic Party,” the flyer read, referring to comments by Wilder about the Democratic primary in which McAuliffe topped three opponents who are African Americans. “It’s time for us to come together to ensure that every Virginian has equal opportunities to achieve dreams.”
Canvassers working for Democrats reported finding the Wilder flyers at the doors of high-propensity Black voters in the Hampton Roads area.
Castillo said one of their canvassers reported back comments from a voter in Newport News, who said: “I thought I was going to vote for McAuliffe, but I just got this in the mail.”
Wilder is now an honorary chair of the Youngkin transition alongside three other former governors, all Republicans.
‘These are our lives’
Despite the Youngkin campaign’s overtures, voters of color in Virginia swung decidedly toward Democrats. And Democratic activists counter that Youngkin’s campaign outreach may not translate into the kinds of policy that will benefit voters of color specifically, including closing existing disparity gaps.
“If they are taking credit for [translated campaign materials] as part of what helped them win, then I hope they follow through on that into the administration,” said Oh, who has advocated for better language access to government materials and services for Asian Americans.
Love was critical of the Youngkin campaign’s message on so-called “critical race theory,” charging that Republicans tapped into “cloaked racism and dog-whistle politics” to animate some voters in a state that he noted was the former capital of the Confederacy. He says the election revealed Virginia has a long way to go to become a more inclusive state.
When they held the governorship and both houses of the legislature, Democrats increased the minimum wage, passed some measures to increase accountability among police officers, made gun laws more strict, legalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, and secured financial aid and driving privilege cards for undocumented immigrants.
Liberal activists said messaging on Democrats’ accomplishments impacting people of color and working-class Virginians got muddled, particularly into the fall.
“During the primary, there was a concerted focus on turning out Black voters, engaging Black voters,” Rodgers said. “ ‘Black’ was coming out of Terry’s mouth every other day. We lost the race messaging immediately after the primary.”
Rodgers said internal memos for field organizing from the McAuliffe campaign focused on issues that resonate with voters at the door, like paid family leave and accelerating the increase to the minimum wage. But she said the mass media strategy was too often about former President Donald Trump.
“I probably knocked on 4,000 doors and I can remember one conversation where someone brought up Trump, and just flippantly,” Rodgers said.
Love similarly noted that Democrats didn’t amplify issues of particular interest to Black voters. He said that the year after the state’s racial reckoning, Democrats spoke little about holding police officers accountable. McAuliffe flip-flopped on his support for ending qualified immunity.
“To Black folks, these are our lives on the line. That was a red flag to many voters,” Love said.
In his view, Democrats relied more on “fear-mongering” around Trump than the kinds of kitchen-table issues that are palpable to voters.
“The message was, ‘If you don’t vote, this candidate will be just like this other person,’ as opposed to giving Black voters a specific reason to vote,” Love said. “Black voters are tired of being fear-mongered into voting and surrogated to death by just helicoptering in famous folks.”
Late in the contest, McAuliffe campaigned with Stacey Abrams, Vice President Kamala Harris, former President Barack Obama and President Joe Biden.
Castillo said the party’s response to McAuliffe’s damaging debate-stage comments about parents not “telling schools what to teach” was similarly a missed opportunity among voters of color. She said many parents of color, like herself, weren’t worried about critical race theory, but were on edge about the state of education after the perils of the pandemic.
In the days after the election, Castillo recalled turning on CNN and watching a panel of white suburban women from Virginia discuss their votes. The chyron read something akin to, “The Democratic Party can’t ignore white suburban women.”
“I started angrily talking to myself: ‘But they don’t! That’s exactly who they talk to!’” Castillo said.
“Here I am, a brown suburban woman who has kids, and that maybe has some of the same fears that they do. And they didn’t talk to me at all.”