Whoever wins Virginia’s tight gubernatorial race Tuesday, the commonwealth will offer a fascinating read on where the country’s stormy politics stand a year after Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, and may point to what happens next.
In the closing days of the race, both nominees in Virginia – as well as the current and former Presidents – have pointed to how the race has national significance and could set the tone for next year’s midterm elections and beyond.
“The entire nation is watching this … there’s only two statewide elections this year, New Jersey and Virginia, and all eyes are on Virginia. The nation needs us to vote for them too,” Republican Glenn Youngkin declared on his final day on the trail on Monday. Ironically, however, Youngkin has done all he can to keep the campaign local, stressing issues like schools and local taxes – to avoid getting sucked into the political maelstrom still raging around Trump.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who’s vying for a second nonconsecutive term, is hoping that apathy among his party’s voters after a somewhat erratic campaign will not dampen turnout in Democratic strongholds in the commuter belt outside Washington, DC. After anchoring his bid on trying to paint Youngkin as a less profane version of Trump, he needs fear of the former President’s possible return to motivate his voters.
“Trump has now endorsed him for the tenth time today,” McAuliffe said after the former President issued a new statement backing his opponent on Monday. “What does that tell you? The little MAGA people, not as excited as you thought.” McAuliffe even went as far as to claim Monday night that Youngkin was “doing an event” with the former President, although a Youngkin aide confirmed to CNN that the Republican candidate did not call into a tele-rally held by Trump on Monday evening.
It can be dangerous to extrapolate too much about the nation’s political destiny from a single race. And what happens on Tuesday will not define critical congressional elections in 2022 or the 2024 presidential duel.
But Virginia and New Jersey are often seen as referendums on a new White House since they vote a year after the presidential election. They offer the first real health check on Biden’s first year in office, after he’s endured a brutal summer and has struggled to enact his massive social spending and infrastructure plans. A McAulliffe loss would be billed as a disaster for Democrats and a sign voters have already turned against them. And even a narrow victory in a state Biden won easily in 2020 would likely still be seen as a warning sign for Democrats and suggest their political position has seriously eroded after a year controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Unusually, the previous presidency – with its racial overtimes and violent end – has also loomed over this Virginia campaign, testimony to Trump’s still hugely divisive role in US politics. Bitter cultural and ideological clashes have rocked this campaign and are already beginning to shape the midterm races. Youngkin has leaned into a fierce backlash from conservatives to the push by progressives for transgender equality and an accounting of America’s past racial sins in the teaching of history in schools.
Scenes of furious parents at school board meetings in Virginia are being repeated nationwide, heralding a new flashpoint that could inject GOP campaigns with similar energy as the Tea Party movement did before midterms in 2010.
And Virginia – with its wealthy, diverse suburbs and rural, conservative tracts, plus strongholds of African American voters around the state capital of Richmond and toward the coast – offers a demographic profile of America in miniature.
Now could be the time for the GOP
Until then-Sen. Barack Obama won Virginia on the way to the White House in 2008, Virginia was considered a solid, conservative, southern state for presidential votes even while electing some Democrats statewide. But it has gone blue in the last four presidential elections, which is one reason why McAuliffe’s struggles this year – after a successful term between 2014 and 2018 – are surprising. (Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms).
But if there ever was a time for a Republican governor to win the state back, it may be now. An incumbent Democratic President has endured a miserable few months with his approval ratings dipping into the mid-to-low 40s. Trump was a huge motivating force for Democratic, independent and disillusioned moderate GOP voters in the state last year. But he’s not on the ballot, despite McAuliffe’s relentless efforts to paint Youngkin as a clone of the former President. The patience of voters has also been sorely tested by the pandemic, with cases spiking in the summer despite Biden declaring it all but over on July Fourth.
The national cultural fights over masks and vaccine mandates electrified the gubernatorial race, while Youngkin tapped into existing frustration with remote schooling for months during Covid-19 to get a hearing for his more partisan messages on the rights of parents to decide how their children are taught about America’s racial history. He also referred to several alleged assaults in schools in the city’s pro-Democrat Loudoun County that triggered controversy over the rights of transgender students.
McAuliffe had left the door wide open with an ill-advised comment in a debate earlier this year, when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin took the comment out of context, but in retrospect, that was the moment when his campaign really gained traction as he chased down his rival’s polling lead in October and made the race a dead heat by Election Day.
Trump looms over the race
For all McAuliffe’s claims that a victory for his foe would open the door to another Trump presidential campaign, the Republican former investment banker has done a skillful job of not being Trump. Framing his campaign on local issues, despite its national implications, and vowing to raise spending on education and nix the grocery tax, Youngkin has tried to appeal to suburban Virginians while sending coded messages to Trump voters that he needs to turn out in big numbers.
His vow to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory – a preoccupation of conservative media – in Virginia schools gets the biggest cheers of his rallies, even though it’s not part of the curriculum. But last week, McAuliffe accused him of trading in racial dog whistles after Youngkin ran an ad in which a parent, who turned out to be a conservative activist, complained about explicit content in a book her son was assigned to read. Unnamed in the ad, the book turned out to be “Beloved,” by the late Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate and one of the country’s most revered African American literary figures. Racial issues are never far below the surface in Virginia, the seat of the Confederacy and the site of a 2017 White supremacist march in Charlottesville, after which Trump equivocated on condemning racist protesters.
Youngkin has not campaigned with Trump – whose low ratings in suburbs nationwide helped doom his party in the US House in 2018 and the Senate and White House in 2020. But the former President’s statement backing Youngkin on Monday looked like an attempt to try to claim credit for his victory should he win.
The towering, mild-mannered Youngkin comes across as a poor model for McAuliffe’s Trump-fueled attack – a problem that Obama, one of the Democratic heavyweights imported to boost McAuliffe’s campaign, took on during a rally last month. “You can’t run ads telling me you are a regular old hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama said.
Youngkin does not have to win suburbs in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties on Tuesday. He just has to do well enough, especially with independents, to limit McAuliffe’s edge while driving out Trump’s base voters downstate.
If he wins, Youngkin will validate a possible template for future Republican candidates who want to broaden their appeal but also need to avoid alienating Trump’s base. He has already demonstrated the potency of running a campaign focused on parents frustrated with public schools. And given the size of the task he faced, a Youngkin victory would crown a new star of the GOP – especially for those conservatives who envision a post-Trump future.
A Youngkin victory would raise questions among Democrats about whether tying GOP candidates to the extremism and anti-democratic incitement of the ex-President is a viable strategy for 2022. And yet Trump – who appears to be using the midterms as a springboard for his own possible 2024 campaign and is backing candidates who promote his lie that the last election was stolen from him – is likely to be a ubiquitous and explosive presence next year who will be difficult for any downballot candidate to escape.
But anything less than a clear victory for McAuliffe would posit that Democratic House seats in Virginia could be in grave danger next year if there is a similar turnout. Given House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s narrow majority, there would be panic among scores of Democrats about a possible GOP rout next year, which could possibly precipitate a wave of retirements from incumbents in threatened seats.
A close race or a small McAuliffe victory will also be closely watched for new signs that Trump and his acolytes will seek to fuel their lies about a broken election system and allege voter fraud. Such claims would further damage faith in US democracy – already gutted among Trump supporters. But it would fuel the ex-President’s personal political goals.