Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as his Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, looks on during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Democrats look to VA governor's race for early signs of trouble in 2022
02:44 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: A life of Radical Amazement.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Democrats are anxiously following the gubernatorial race in Virginia.

Many Democrats initially thought former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe would have a relatively easy path to victory. But now he seems to be struggling with less than three weeks to go until Election Day.

McAuliffe is facing stiff competition from Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive who is trying to capitalize on anti-vaccine sentiments and the pushback against schools that cover race and racism in their curricula.

The race is also heating up after McAuliffe called on Youngkin to condemn the January 6 insurrection after Republican supporters at a “Take Back Virginia” rally on Wednesday pledged allegiance to an American flag that organizers said was at the US Capitol during the attack. While Youngkin was not at Wednesday’s rally, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon addressed the crowd, as did former President Donald Trump, who said, “Glenn Youngkin is a great gentleman.”

On Thursday evening, Youngkin released a statement that read, “While I had no role in last night’s event, I have heard about it from many people in the media today. It is weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6. As I have said many times before, the violence that occurred on January 6 was sickening and wrong.”

Prominent Democrats, including former President Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams, have agreed to step in and stump for McAuliffe.

Meanwhile, news reports are already calling the Virginia race a warning sign for Democrats. Regardless of what happens, however, it is important to remember that the outcome will only give us a limited window into the political state of play. Off-year and special elections are not always the best way to predict how elections will play out elsewhere in the country.

Even if McAuliffe were to lose, it is highly likely that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy – who has supported the national Democrats on most issues and stood by controversial Covid mandates – will defeat Republican Jack Ciattareli in the Garden State’s gubernatorial contest on November 2. It would therefore be a mistake to read too much into the results and what they mean for the 2022 midterm elections.

The heightened scrutiny surrounding the Virginia race is in large part due to the challenges President Joe Biden has faced in the past month. Sagging poll numbers and stalled legislation have raised concerns about the President’s standing, as well as the enthusiasm and support Democrats will be able to drum up going into the 2022 midterm elections. Whether the assumption is accurate or not, plenty of pundits and political analysts will see the Virginia race as a barometer of the Democratic Party’s standing.

This will, in turn, affect both parties as they look to Virginia to assess the importance of key issues and talking points. Republicans will gauge how effective their culture war agenda is faring. Should they continue railing against vaccine and mask mandates and criticize the way race is taught in schools? Or should they focus on other concerns like inflation and supply chain disruptions to undercut the President and win elections in 2022?

Democrats on the other hand, will assess their core arguments – namely that the President is normalizing governance and putting forth effective policies to contain the spread of the pandemic. Will this be enough to win the support of voters in swing districts who are crucial to maintaining control of the House in 2022?

The way the media covers this gubernatorial race will have a significant impact on both parties. If Youngkin wins in Virginia, for example, and subsequent news reports disproportionately cover the ways McAuliffe’s support for vaccine mandates contributed to his opponent’s victory, that might affect how candidates in 2022 talk about their approach to Covid-19.

The media coverage could also have an impact on the way President Biden approaches the current legislative battles playing out in Congress. It could determine how far he is willing to resist the demands of Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema or underscore the importance of striking a compromise within the party, no matter what.

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    History shows that off-year and special elections don’t necessarily reflect the state of national politics. When McAuliffe won Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2013, for instance, that win was not indicative of the wreckage Democrats would suffer in the 2014 midterm election and the 2016 general election. It is dangerous to take the results of a gubernatorial or congressional election and draw conclusions about the country at large.

    But they still matter. Because politicians and reporters believe that they are telling, explanations for why certain candidates prevail can sometimes take on a life of their own. Parties then often respond, adjust and reconsider their strategies accordingly. It is likely that in our heated and contentious moment, Virginia will have that effect in the coming months.