Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat running for governor of Virginia, summed up the election in one sentence.
âIt all comes back to the same here: Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump,â he said the other day.
Virginia’s gubernatorial contests have long been a barometer of national political mood a year after the start of a new presidency. For Democrats, the stakes have never looked higher: A defeat for Mr McAuliffe, a popular former governor seeking to return to his old job, could deal a devastating blow to party confidence ahead of the country’s mid-terms. next year and his strategy of running against Mr. Trump even when he’s not on the ballot.
For Republicans, the stakes are lower: Their candidate, first-time candidate Glenn Youngkin, could narrowly lose given Virginia’s increasingly blue hue, but still represents proof of concept that a GOP candidate can unite moderates and hard-line supporters of the party without going there. all about Trumpism.
Whether it’s Mr. McAuliffe hammering Mr. Trump’s attempts to overthrow the 2020 election or Mr. Youngkin walking Trump’s tightrope – nodding to the base of voter fraud, while keeping the former president partly at a distance – Mr. Trump has been an inevitable factor in the Virginia campaign.
The surprisingly tight competition, which is in fact the opening act of the 2022 midterms, will also test the appeal of both parties for the country’s most crucial and coveted voters – those in the suburbs. populated and diverse, which should largely decide the race in Virginia as well as the control of Congress next year.
âI think every Democrat follows Virginia like a pointer,â said Gordon Hintz, the Democratic leader of the Wisconsin State Assembly. “This definitely set the tone in 2017 for the 2018 cycle.”
Beyond general strategies, every candidate has landed on a favorite question in the last two weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election, both of which are expected to feature prominently in races elsewhere. For Mr. McAuliffe, the stake is the right to abortion, newly threatened by the Supreme Court. For Mr. Youngkin, the problem is parental controls on schools, which could broaden its appeal to independents who abandoned the GOP under Mr. Trump.
Polls show a race in statistical tie in Virginia, with ominous implications for President Biden, who easily won the state. Democrats say they are battling harsh but temporary headwinds: rising inflation, the lingering pandemic and a sense of Democratic incompetence in Washington, where the party is at a stalemate over pushing its top national priorities .
âYoungkin, to his credit, has done a very good job of maintaining the loyalty of the Trump base while trying to generate defections in the Democratic Party suburbs,â said Bob Holsworth, longtime political analyst in Virginia. âIf a Republican can win in Virginia by talking about critical race theory, his pro-life beliefs – a 10-point Biden state – that would be more than a wake-up call to Democrats. It would be someone playing the alarm clock in their bedroom with a trumpet.
Virginians, who are voting for governor a year after the presidential elections, have long berated the party that holds the White House. Mr. McAuliffe’s victory in 2013, a year after President Barack Obama was reelected, was the only exception in four decades. During the Trump years, the state turned even more to the Democrats in federal and federal elections, pushed by graduate voters in suburban Northern Virginia and Richmond who rejected the president’s conflicted leadership.
Mr Biden’s capture of 54% of suburban voters nationwide last year was mainly what got him into the White House. Commuters have tipped states off the battlefield, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona. They also hold the key to the majority of competitive House races in 2022. Whether the Democrats won the long-term allegiance of the commuters or Mr. Biden simply “praised” them, as strategists like to say, is a major question that Virginia’s election could help clarify.
Republicans think they already know the answer. âThe proximity of this race suggests that the suburban swing voter is quickly coming back to Republicans,â said Dan Conston, chairman of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that focuses on House races. âIt’s a warning sign for the many Democrats in place in the inner city of the suburbs. “
But Democrats believe the fear of Trumpism will keep the suburbs in their corner. New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, chairman of the Democrats’ 2022 congressional campaign arm, recently said he was advising members in competitive suburban seats to run against “Trump’s toxicity without Trump on the ballot. of vote “.
“You have to remind them that the other side is for the insurgency, when we are trying to do infrastructure,” Maloney said, speaking to the liberal “Pod Save America” ââpodcast. “They are for fighting, when we are trying to solve problems.”
From the start, Mr. McAuliffe’s playbook has been to merge Mr. Youngkin with Mr. Trump in the minds of voters. A new TV commercial this week attempts to tie Mr. Youngkin to the former president’s ambiguities about white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.
Mr McAuliffe received new ammunition last week when Mr Trump phoned to endorse Mr Youngkin at a rally which began by reciting the pledge of allegiance using a flag which organizers said had was worn on January 6 in Washington. Mr McAuliffe leapt up and Mr Youngkin, who had not attended the rally, issued a statement calling the use of the flag “bizarre and wrong”.
Mr. Youngkin has attempted to straddle party divisions, appealing to Mr. Trump’s loyalists as well as moderate Republicans and independents. The enthusiasm that some polls show Virginia Republicans hold on Democrats suggests he was successful in uniting the party.
This is not an easy task. âYoungkin seems more adept at trying to avoid Trump,â said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who works for several Senate candidates in competitive races in 2022. âThe degree of success of this project will be a strong signal to many races across the country. “
Mr Youngkin began the general election with a focus on conventional Republican issues of taxes and job creation, but now he is aggressively leaning into conservative attacks on how race is taught in government. schools and giving parents more control.
A year-long outcry in Loudoun County, targeting school board members over racial equity policies and transgender students, suggests Mr Youngkin may be able to exploit an issue that not only s’ turns out to be conservative, but persuades some suburban moderates.
Jon Seaton, a Republican strategist from Virginia, said the schools problem was affecting suburban parents. “In my little focus group on the sidelines of the weekend football games – I’m pretty sure they didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 – at least some are extremely frustrated with what’s going on in the public schools, âsaid Seaton, who consults for applicants across the country. “It is certainly possible that education, for the first time in a very long time, will become something that Republican candidates are running for.”
In pushing the question, Mr Youngkin spent over $ 1 million on a TV commercial that extracted a statement by Mr McAuliffe from a slightly out of context debate, in which he said: ‘I don’t think that parents should tell schools what to teach.
A Fox News poll of likely Virginia voters conducted last week showed a mixed decision on education. By a 23-point margin, parents among likely voters said they should have a say in what schools teach. However, when asked which candidate they were supporting, parents preferred Mr. McAuliffe by 53 to 43 percent.
For Mr McAuliffe, abortion is the issue he tackled on the home stretch of the race, spending heavily on a TV commercial showing a hidden camera video of Mr Youngkin acknowledging that he must publicly downplay his opposition to abortion to win independent voters, but promising to go âon the offensiveâ if elected.
A second McAuliffe abortion TV commercial predicted the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade and introduced Mr. Youngkin saying he opposed adding an abortion right to Virginia’s constitution.
Historically, a single focus on abortion has led mostly conservative voters. Now that abortion opponents seem poised to achieve what they have long sought, the power of the issue may shift to the Democrats. Its ability to motivate voters is being tested in Virginia.