Memo to Republicans: This Is How You Lose Gracefully

Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race surprised many people in a state that has been trending blue for years. Republican candidates also won the other top races in the state, for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

All three races were high-profile, closely fought affairs. Yet there were no claims of fraud by the losers, no conspiracy theories about Venezuelan despots rigging voting machines, no spurious lawsuits demanding recounts. As of Wednesday afternoon, at least, the State Capitol in Richmond stands untouched.

How refreshing to see adults accepting defeat with grace.

And the stakes were plenty high. Democrats across the country had grown increasingly anxious over the polls coming out of Virginia, and for good reason. It’s considered a bellwether for the midterm elections, and Tuesday’s vote served as the first major referendum on the Biden era.

The McAuliffe campaign’s reaction to his crushing loss? Gird yourselves. “Congratulations to Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin on his victory,” Mr. McAuliffe said in a statement Wednesday morning. “I hope Virginians will join me in wishing the best to him and his family.”

Come again? Republican turnout was way up in key precincts; surely Mr. McAuliffe was teeing up to make some wild accusation about partisan operatives stuffing ballot boxes. “While last night we came up short, I am proud that we spent this campaign fighting for the values we so deeply believe in,” the statement said.

It’s almost like listening to a foreign language, isn’t it? Over the past year, Americans have been subjected to an endless temper tantrum by one of the country’s two major political parties — a party now led by people who have apparently lost the capacity to admit defeat. One year to the day since the polls closed in 2020, Donald Trump still hasn’t formally conceded that election. He couldn’t even muster the dignity and decorum to hand over the presidency to Joe Biden in person, skipping town on Inauguration Day like a crook on the lam.

This can’t-accept-defeat mentality began in earnest before the 2016 election, which Mr. Trump said was rigged even after he won, and it has set the tone for all that has come since. It emboldened the absurd and dangerous campaign of lies about election fraud in 2020, which notably focused on the big cities where larger numbers of Black voters live. It led directly to the deadly Jan. 6 riot that Mr. Trump incited at the U.S. Capitol. And it continues to infect the party 10 months later, as top Republicans still refuse to acknowledge Mr. Biden as the legitimately elected president and Republican-led states pass laws to make it easier for their legislatures to overturn the will of the voters if they don’t like the result.

Speaking of election fraud, Republicans have been strangely quiet on the topic this time around. Interesting how that works: When a Democrat wins, it’s ipso facto proof of fraud. When a Republican wins — presto! — the election is on the level. This is how so many top Republicans managed to keep a straight face in 2020 as they argued that votes for Mr. Biden were fraudulent even while votes for winning Republican candidates farther down the same ballot were magically untainted.

Hey, Republicans! This does not have to be so hard. All you have to do is value American democracy more than you value your own party’s hold on power. I guarantee that Democrats want to win just as badly as you do, and yet they take their lumps like grown-ups.

Here are some examples to learn from: In 2016, Hillary Clinton conceded less than a day after polls closed, even though she was running neck and neck with Mr. Trump in key swing states and was sitting on a popular-vote lead that would eventually swell to nearly three million votes. President Obama called Mr. Trump in the middle of the night to congratulate him; this is the most basic stuff of peaceful democratic transitions, and yet Mr. Trump could never bring himself to do it.

Or recall what Vice President Al Gore did on Dec. 13, 2000, conceding one of the closest elections in more than a century after the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 to stop the vote counting in Florida. “I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession,” Mr. Gore said in a nationally televised address that should stand as one of the most important moments in American history.

Alas, Republicans these days seem more intent on deflecting criticism than on hearing it. Cue the references to Stacey Abrams, who refused to concede the 2018 Georgia governor’s race after losing to her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp. Agreed, that wasn’t good. It also wasn’t good that Mr. Kemp, as the secretary of state at the time, was in charge of running the election in which he was a candidate. After her defeat, she and others accused him of suppressing turnout by purging Georgia’s rolls of more than 1.4 million inactive voters. It’s worth noting that Ms. Abrams was not the incumbent and that no major Democratic figures publicly supported her refusal to concede.

Losing is hard. It happens to everybody. But a concession is not just a symbolic gesture. It is the sine qua non of representative democracy — a literal enactment of the loser’s acceptance of the legitimacy of his or her opponent. When a single candidate refuses to concede, it’s corrosive. When a sitting president and much of his party refuse to, it can turn deadly, as the world saw on Jan. 6.

I’m no fan of Mr. Youngkin, but he won fair and square, just as Mr. Biden did a year ago. Maybe Mr. Youngkin’s victory will remind his party that it can still prevail in closely fought elections and accept the ones they lose. Meanwhile, Republicans should read Mr. McAuliffe’s statement and remember why it’s so important to lose gracefully.

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