Virginia’s gubernatorial election is more important than ever as a national barometer

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If Republican Glenn Youngkin triumphs in a margin-of-error tussle in the commonwealth, already alarmed Democrats would tip into full-on panic about next year’s midterms, when their party faces a historical disadvantage as the party in the White House. The devastating blow would swell doubts about Biden’s own political authority and capacity to drive an endangered agenda through Congress with a spending and debt cliff looming in December. And Youngkin, a wealthy former private equity executive, would trigger an inquest among Democrats over whether tarring GOP candidates with the polarizing aura of Donald Trump — as McAuliffe has done incessantly — will be quite so potent when they’re not running in deep blue states like California and when the ex-President is not on the ballot.

On CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, the once and possible future Virginia governor tried to explain why the race is so close in a state where Biden thrashed Trump by 10 points only 11 months ago.

“This is an off-off-year. If you look at the history of Virginia, it’s not a presidential year turnout. Turnouts go from like 70 percent down to somewhere in the 40s,” said McAuliffe, who won a close gubernatorial election in 2013, a year that followed a Democratic White House win. “Listen, we’re going to win this race because I’m right on the issues,” McAuliffe told Dana Bash.

Pundits sometimes over-interpret individual races, trying to extrapolate from them the results of future elections elsewhere while ignoring their idiosyncrasies. But a Democratic defeat in what has become a reliably blue state over the last decade would be impossible to ignore and would cause political headaches for Democrats that reach beyond the Biden presidency. Republicans have struggled in recent years to balance the increasingly populist and nationalist leanings of the pro-Trump base with a need to appeal to highly educated, affluent voters in the suburbs. The task is especially hard in the Northern Virginia suburbs around Washington, DC, which teem with federal workers and highly educated and affluent voters. But if Youngkin can thread the needle, the wider political world will take note.

“Every gubernatorial election in Virginia is seen as a leading political indicator. How the parties do in Virginia’s governor’s race, the year after a presidential election, is seen as a harbinger of how the parties will do in the midterm elections,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

McAuliffe is a long-time friend of Biden, who endorsed him in the primary, and he shares the President’s moderate leanings. His victory in a Democratic primary over more progressive rivals was seen as an endorsement of Biden-style centrism.

Democrats have a midterm turnout problem. Being more liberal won't help.

But he recently admitted that the President was “unpopular” in Virginia and he would have to “plow through” the “headwinds from Washington,” though he has since sought to reframe his remark by venting broader frustration at the failure of Democratic lawmakers to pass Biden’s agenda. He is particularly passionate about a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that progressive House Democrats have refused to pass as they fight to ensure the passage of a larger social spending measure opposed by moderate Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Democratic leaders hope to pass the agenda this month ahead of the Virginia election on November 2. But if anything, the battle between left and more moderate factions is becoming even more heated in Washington — threatening that timeline and McAuliffe’s campaign in the final weeks.

If McAuliffe loses and the bills remain in limbo in early November, the implications for the measures themselves — and a prolonged stalemate that could damage 2022 Democratic congressional candidates — will be foreboding for the party.

So much at stake in Virginia

In the short-term, a Republican triumph in Virginia and implications that Democratic voters lack enthusiasm less than a year into their party’s control of Washington would further dent Biden’s political standing after a brutal summer of raging Covid-19 infections, the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan, rising inflation and lagging jobs numbers.

It would also weaken the President’s sway in Congress heading into a critical period with Democratic leaders facing a daunting task of funding the government and raising the debt ceiling in early December with tiny minorities.

“Both parties want the bragging rights of a winner in Virginia. And if McAuliffe loses, that’s going to scare some Democrats on the fence on the Biden agenda,” Farnsworth said.

Such an outcome would be sure to intensify the battle for the soul of the Washington Democratic Party that has put Biden’s presidency on a knife-edge. Moderates may interpret a McAuliffe loss as a sign that voters are souring on the vast multi-trillion dollar Biden administration spending proposal. Progressives would double down on their view that moderate Democrats — by blocking that $3.5 trillion social spending plan — are dampening enthusiasm among liberal voters.

In the end, Virginia may well correspond to its prevailing political character, and McAuliffe could inspire sufficient suburban voters to win a rare second term in office in a state where governors are barred from serving consecutive terms. But a Youngkin victory would also raise profound questions for Biden and Democrats in the longer term that will reverberate in the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential election.

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Youngkin walks fine line on 'election integrity'

Since 2008, when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since President Lyndon Johnson, Virginia has held talismanic appeal for the party. Its demographic changes — a suburban population explosion, an influx of young, diverse more socially liberal voters, many in the tech sector, along with a reliable African American voting bloc around the state capital of Richmond — have superseded conservative, rural voters that made the commonwealth a southern bastion for decades. The state is also seen by Democrats as a template for other southern states that are becoming increasingly purple, like Georgia and North Carolina, where Democrats see demographic trends providing a long-term path to power even as some former perennial swing states like Ohio trend Republican. After finally gaining control of all the centers of power in Virginia in 2020, Democrats have passed a transformational agenda, including measures on gun control, abortion and a minimum wage increase, that a Republican in the governor’s mansion could halt.

So a McAuliffe loss would have strategic consequences in the state itself as well as being a terrible morale blow to Democrats running for office elsewhere.

McAuliffe has driven home a relentless attack on Youngkin, blasting him in almost every media appearance and rally as a Trump clone. “I’m running against a Donald Trump wannabe,” McAuliffe said on “State of the Union,” repeatedly linking his rival to an ex-President who alienated suburban Virginians who dislike culture war politics. Since many work in the government across the Potomac River, Trump’s frequent abuses of power held particular resonance.

“I really hate to see what Glenn Youngkin is trying to do to Virginia what Donald Trump did our country,” McAuliffe said.

The Trump factor

A Youngkin victory might suggest that running a searingly anti-Trump campaign against Republican candidates when the ex-President is not up for election himself may not be as effective as some Democratic strategists hope.

Still, Democrats can console themselves with the fact that Trump can be relied upon to be involved in the midterms. He is doing everything he can to make himself the GOP kingmaker as he fires up what is beginning to look like an inevitable 2024 presidential run. After he alienated many women and suburban voters in 2018, when Democrats flipped the House, and in 2020, when Democrats won the White House and flipped the Senate, his ubiquitous presence — including the extremism and lies about the 2020 election that were on display at a massive rally in Iowa on Saturday night — could have a similarly damaging impact on Republican fortunes in 2022. That may be especially true if his attempt to stack GOP slates with loyalists prevents more moderate Republicans from running where they may have more appeal than hardline Trumpists in head-to-head races against Democrats. Plus, the more Trump’s involved, the more he may help gin up Democratic turnout.

Virginia Republicans seize on parental rights and schools fight in final weeks of campaign

But by winning Virginia, Youngkin could also offer an example to other Republicans in battleground states of how to deal with the hangover from Trump’s presidency while keeping the base on board. He has offered coded messages to Trump voters by talking about election integrity, for example, and was endorsed by the former President. But Trump hasn’t shown up in Virginia to campaign for Youngkin, despite McAuliffe goading him to do so.

The Republican has also shaped a message on economics that might appeal to both affluent Northern Virginians and those struggling against rising prices in an economy emerging from the pandemic. He proposes eliminating the state’s grocery tax, suspending a recent rise in the gas tax and a list of cuts in state taxes and new rebates.

He also beat more overtly pro-Trump candidates in the GOP primary. Still, his formula might not work so well in battleground states that lack Virginia’s vast suburbs and other demographic characteristics and where Trump’s demagogic appeal and lies about election fraud in 2020 have more currency for base voters.

Youngkin’s race will be keenly watched by national Republican strategists who believe issues like how transgender kids participate in school sports and a furor fanned by right-wing media commentators over critical race theory could help weaken the Democratic dominance in the suburbs.

He was quick, for instance, to seize on a comment by McAuliffe in their second debate when the former governor said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” The issue is a lightning rod for conservative media and played into controversies on race in education that motivates Republican voters at a time when schools have also been consumed by debate over Covid-19 mask mandates. McAuliffe’s attack may resonate with sympathetic suburban voters, but it was a line that actually helped Youngkin demonstrate to base voters that he was firmly on their side — voters he needs to turn out to win.

So while Biden and McAuliffe have the most to lose on November 2, Youngkin’s campaign is also a test case for how the GOP can improve its competitiveness as it eyes big gains in the midterms and hopes for a return to the White House two years later.

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