Statewide elections in Virginia for governor and the Legislature are poised to send shock waves around the country on Tuesday night — if Republicans can translate an edge in enthusiasm among their core voters into wins at the ballot box.
The Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, has had the clear advantage in the campaign’s closing weeks. He has closed in on Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe in public polling, and some surveys have shown the Republican leading by a few points.
In fact, the FiveThirtyEight average of all public polling showed Youngkin gaining a narrow 1-point lead last Thursday. It’s within the margin of error, but it’s the first time Youngkin has ever led in the race, and it shows he has the momentum.
A Youngkin win would invigorate the Republican Party nationwide, just as Democrats were given a jolt of enthusiasm in 2017 when current Gov. Ralph Northam enjoyed a resounding win over Republican Ed Gillespie. The 2017 result was seen, correctly, as a sign of more wins to come for Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
The Virginia effect did not disappoint four years ago. Northam won because college-educated voters in northern Virginia, Richmond and the Virginia Beach area delivered a massive anti-Trump protest vote, helping Democrats get close to a majority in the state Legislature, which they cemented two years later, in 2019.
That anti-Trump vote in Virginia showed up nationwide in 2018. The national midterm elections saw the highest-percentage turnout in more than 100 years for a nonpresidential election, and Democrats took control of the House of Representatives.
That pattern continued in 2020, but with a twist. There was still significant anti-Trump sentiment, and the erstwhile reality TV star was easily defeated by Joe Biden in the popular vote. Biden's triumph in Virginia, by 10 percentage points, contrasted with that of 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who carried the state by 5 points.
But Republicans in Congress did better than expected in 2020, as portions of the electorate registered discomfort with elements of the Democratic agenda.
Now that Trump is out of office, Youngkin has a chance to capitalize on his absence by winning back those suburban voters who couldn’t stomach Trump but have been turned off by Democrats as well.
Biden’s poll numbers tanked over the summer and haven’t recovered. Democrats are pushing for a massive, $1.75 trillion social policy bill that pleases their base but might concern fiscal moderates, and yet they have been unable to pass that legislation or an infrastructure bill despite months of trying.
The Democratic grassroots voters are deflated by the inaction in Congress, and more casual voters who trend Democratic are more apathetic with Trump gone. If Youngkin wins Tuesday night, Republicans will look on track to take back control of the House in 2022, and possibly the Senate as well.
McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin to Trump at every chance he gets, and this has been one of the race’s key dynamics. Youngkin has walked a fine line in seeking to retain Trump-supporting Republican voters but has also kept his distance from the former president. Trump has not campaigned in Virginia for Youngkin. And Youngkin, a former private equity CEO, does not look or sound anything like Trump.
Yet he has made several overtures to the Trump crowd. He did not acknowledge that Biden was a legitimate president until after securing the Republican nomination in May, and while avoiding a direct answer to questions about the 2020 election, he also made a task force on election integrity the centerpiece of his primary campaign.
Although Youngkin has since said he would have voted to certify Biden’s victory, the task force was a signal to Trump supporters who believe the former president’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him.
And Trump has injected himself into the race as well, unable to stay away from a state where 54 percent of those surveyed earlier this year said he was worse than most presidents.
Trump was scheduled to call in to a campaign event Monday night that Youngkin was not attending, and Trump has criticized Youngkin for not embracing him more closely. At the same time, the former president reiterated Monday that Youngkin had his “Complete and Total Endorsement” in a statement the McAuliffe campaign looked to use to its advantage.
Trump also called in to a bizarre campaign event by Youngkin supporters in October, where attendees recited the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag that organizers said had been carried on Jan. 6 in Washington, D.C., when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and waged a violent insurrection in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
The other key dynamic has been Youngkin’s ability to tap into the anger of suburban voters over a mixture of topics related to public schools, which grew out of frustration over remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. This past summer, organized conservative groups protested at school board meetings about mask mandates and how public schools teach racial issues.
In late September, McAuliffe’s comment in a debate — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” — fell like a lit match into a tinderbox. Youngkin harnessed his campaign to the energy of the school protest movement, which was organized by right-wing activists. During the past few weeks, Youngkin has labeled his events as “Parents Matter” rallies.
And then in the second half of October, Youngkin called for an investigation into the Loudoun County school board after a student was found to have sexually assaulted two different classmates during the previous few months. As details have emerged, the story has grown more complicated, but Youngkin has used the outrage over the incidents to further propel his candidacy.
There is also some concern among Democrats about potentially low turnout among Black Virginians and the possibility that Princess Blanding, a leftist third-party candidate, could siphon away just enough votes from McAuliffe to hand Youngkin a victory.
But while Youngkin may have the edge as the election comes to a close, it’s also possible that the state’s lengthy early-voting period could help Democrats close any gap on Election Day. Democrats tend to be more likely than Republicans to take advantage of early voting, which began in Virginia on Sept. 17 — when McAuliffe still led in the polls.
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