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The Blue State Fueling GOP Hopes for 2022

The Virginia governor's race has turned into a referendum on Biden and schools, issues Republicans believe will work well for them during the midterms.

President Joe Biden and Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.
(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/TNS)
Virginians loved snubbing the White House. In elections for governor between 1973 and 2009, they voted against the president’s party every time. The person who finally broke that pattern was Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat elected in 2013, a year after President Barack Obama won his second term.

Now, McAuliffe has to worry that the historical pattern is reasserting itself at his expense. As he seeks a second term, McAuliffe’s fortunes are being weighed down by President Biden’s poor approval ratings and congressional Democrats’ inability to deliver on his agenda.

Heading into next Tuesday’s vote, McAuliffe leads Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive, by just 1.5 percentage points, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. “The polls have pretty consistently shown an election within the margin of error,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

McAuliffe is not the only Virginia Democrat in trouble. A poll from Christopher Newport University released Wednesday showed the party’s nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general only holding single-point leads. The less-than-dominating performances from the statewide candidates potentially puts the Democrats’ five-seat margin in the state House at risk as well. (State Senate seats are not on the ballot.)

“We always thought this would be a tighter race,” concedes David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “The history of Virginia governor races has always proven that.”

Virginia is unique in only allowing governors to serve single, nonconsecutive four-year terms. Youngkin has helped himself by running a better campaign than Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee four years ago, says Chaz Nuttycombe, a state politics analyst based in Virginia. Conversely, McAuliffe is not running as smoothly as incumbent Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam did four years ago – or as well as McAuliffe himself did back in 2013.

“There’s no scenario where McAuliffe beats Northam’s margin,” Nuttycombe said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Northam carried the state by 9 percentage points, even as polls back then suggested a tighter race. That history, along with Biden’s 10-point win in Virginia last November, has Democrats such as Turner confident that the race, while closer than they’d wish, will ultimately turn out in McAuliffe’s favor.

"There are a lot of people out there freaking out about how tight it is, and they should never have freaked out because it was always going to be tight," says Mo Elleithee, a Georgetown University analyst who has worked for McAuliffe and other Virginia Democrats in the past.

Republicans sense that their voters are more enthusiastic about coming out than the Democrats who have dominated the state for the past decade. “There is nothing like losing the White House to bring a party together,” Farnsworth says.

All Politics Is National

Although the contest is for governor, the race has turned largely on national issues. There has been extraordinarily limited discussion of Virginia-specific matters such as port activity in Hampton Roads or revitalizing the economy in Southwest Virginia. Instead, the talk has been all about national issues, or even international issues.

“McAuliffe’s Biden problem isn’t going away,” the Republican Governors Association said in a recent press release. “He’s been endorsed by the deeply unpopular president who abandoned Americans in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.”

For their part, Democrats are hoping the fact that the Supreme Court will be reviewing the recent Texas ban on most abortions on the eve of the election will help motivate their voters by reminding them of the stakes.

But the race has been dominated lately by schools. Youngkin has complained about mask and vaccine mandates, while also seeking to channel anger over transgender and nonbinary student rights and, especially, the teaching of racial history that conservatives have framed as critical race theory or anti-white racial indoctrination.
Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) speaks during a campaign event on July 14, 2021, in McLean, Virginia.
(Win McNamee/TNS)
Republicans believe that these are issues that will not only work for Youngkin but resonate nationally in 2022. McAuliffe gave his opponent a big gift during a debate last month when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The quote, not always presented in perfect context, has become a staple of GOP messaging.

“I’m sure McAuliffe would take back his statement about ‘parents shouldn’t tell teachers what to teach’ if he could, or at least qualify it – just as Youngkin would probably like to take back his declaration that Donald Trump was why he was running for governor,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “But once you say it, you’re stuck with it.”

Proxy War

Campaigning for McAuliffe on Tuesday, Biden explicitly linked Youngkin to Trump. “Remember this: I ran against Donald Trump,” Biden said. “And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump.”

Youngkin received the GOP nomination over a field of candidates who mostly took a harder line on both policy issues and support of Trump. He has sought to straddle a line between satisfying Trump supporters, while not putting off suburban independents who may have soured on Biden but don’t like the former president. Youngkin refused, for instance, to wade into the issue of whether last year’s election was stolen until after taking the nomination, when he said that Biden’s election was legitimate.

Democrats have suggested that, had he been governor, Youngkin would not have sent state troopers to help protect the Capitol during the Jan. 6 assault. But after supporters saluted a flag associated with that event, Youngkin called the Capitol riot “sickening and wrong.”

“There are two presidents in the conversation in Virginia in 2021,” says Farnsworth, the University of Mary Washington professor. “The people who don’t like Trump are encouraged by the McAuliffe campaign to connect Trump and Youngkin, and the same goes on the Republican side.”

The election is the first major contest since Trump left office. McAuliffe himself has acknowledged Biden’s slipping numbers are hurting him. That’s given Republicans the sense that if they can win in Virginia, they can win everywhere next year.

The only other gubernatorial contest, in New Jersey, is closer than Democrats had hoped but incumbent Phil Murphy is still a heavy favorite. A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed him with a bare majority of support but a healthy 11-point lead.

For a long time, Virginia was a mostly red state, but Democrats have won every statewide contest since 2009, taking over the Legislature in 2019 and enacting a progressive agenda. The state’s blue edge, particularly in the voter-rich Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, means that a Youngkin win would be an upset.

But not, at this point, a surprising one.
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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