“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
NEWTON’S third law of motion—that force always comes in pairs—is basic physics, but perhaps it should be taught in political science classes as well. Because the third law of motion is essentially what is more commonly referred to as “the backlash,” and Virginians can see it in action as they head to the polls on Tuesday.
The idea that a political neophyte like investment banker Glenn Youngkin would be in a neck-and-neck race with Terry McAuliffe days before the gubernatorial election—in a blue state, no less—would have been laughable just a few months ago.
But depending on what polls you’re looking at, Youngkin is either ahead or tied with McAuliffe. That’s all the more remarkable because McAuliffe is a former governor of Virginia, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and a former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman who was even considering a presidential run himself at one point.
Most of McAuliffe’s problems have been self-inflicted, in particular his outrageous statement during a debate with Youngkin that parents should have no say in what public schools are teaching their children. Virginians haven’t seen such a campaign implode since former Republican Governor and Senator George Allen blew a 13-point lead in the polls in 2006 with his macaca gaffe.
These campaign blunders always seem on the surface to be pivotal moments, and they are. But that’s only because beneath the surface there’s been a growing backlash to the candidate and his party that suddenly erupts in the open.
In Allen’s case, an unpopular president (George W. Bush) who erroneously told Americans that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and manifest incompetency demonstrated by his administration in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, energized thousands of Virginians to work for Jim Webb, who went on to defeat Allen. “Macaca” was just the fuse that ignited the building backlash.
Similarly, in October 2020 right before the presidential election, candidate Joe Biden said that “anyone who’s responsible for that many [COVID-19] deaths [about 220,000 at the time] should not remain as President of the United States of America.” The COVID death count in America is now 745,565.
Biden’s plummeting poll numbers, along with manifest incompetency demonstrated by his administration in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, is a drag on Democrats running local and statewide races. That’s part of the reason why McAuliffe’s tone-deaf comment sparked an intense backlash among Virginia voters that could cost him the election.
When politicians appease their political bases by listening more to activists than ordinary citizens, they often misread the public mood and make ill-advised statements that can backfire spectacularly. And after a year of having to deal with virtual schooling, parents in Virginia were in no mood to be told they didn’t have a say in their children’s education.