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WASHINGTON — Virginia may be for lovers, as the commonwealth’s famous tourism slogan goes, but in recent years the state has also been for Democrats.
Powered by growth in the wealthy suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., the onetime capital of the Confederacy now has a Democratic governor, two Democrats in the U.S. Senate and its first female Jewish state House speaker, also a Democrat.
But an upcoming gubernatorial election will test just how thoroughly Democratic roots have taken hold in Virginia’s soil. The Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, has already been governor once, and is thoroughly enmeshed in the Beltway establishment. His Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, is a financier with no experience in politics, but he has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump.
"He's too extreme for Virginia," McAuliffe told Yahoo News in a recent interview, making the case that electing Youngkin would be a blow to Virginia’s image as a progressive Southern state, one that has abolished the death penalty and legalized cannabis.
“We're not going back,” McAuliffe says. “We're open and welcome."
Youngkin did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In recent weeks, he has gained on McAuliffe to the extent that the venerable Cook Political Report now calls the race a toss-up.
The development is worrisome for Democrats, who have come to view the Old Dominion as their turf. “Low Biden ratings, massive Youngkin spending, and a lack of energy among D voters (false belief that Rs can’t win in the new VA) have made this election quite competitive,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato recently tweeted.
Even the White House is worried, Politico reports. “People are going to get skittish if we lose this,” one former McAuliffe aide is quoted as fretting.
A Republican hasn’t won statewide in Virginia since 2009, when Bob McDonnell’s successful gubernatorial campaign presaged the Tea Party-led “shellacking” of congressional Democrats the following year. Nor has Virginia voted for the Republican presidential nominee since 2004; Trump lost the state by some 10 points to Joe Biden last November.
The fact that the race is not shaping up to be a Democratic blowout has focused attention on Youngkin in ways that have not necessarily redounded to his benefit. In an interview with Axios, Youngkin wouldn’t say whether, as a hypothetical member of Congress, he would have certified Biden’s victory in last November’s election. He tried to clean up the answer, but McAuliffe and the Democrats pounced all the same.
At the same time, it would be difficult to dismiss Youngkin as one of the many Trump wannabes currently seeking elected office across the country. Although indeed new to politics, Youngkin carries himself with polish. Despite necessary overtures to the pro-Trump base, his résumé is more in keeping with that of a country-club Republican of the Bush and Romney era: He graduated from Harvard Business School before landing at McKinsey and Co., the famous consulting firm, and eventually became chief executive of the Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity firms in the world.
So while McAuliffe and his allies would like to paint Youngkin as a rabid radical of the Trump school, the fact remains that Youngkin at least looks the part of a J.Crew-clad moderate, one who could appeal to suburbanites in northern Virginia and the Richmond area.
Trump hasn’t campaigned with Youngkin, but McAuliffe would like nothing more than that. The last time Trump campaigned for Republican candidates, Democrats won both of Georgia’s seats in the U.S. Senate. And Trump did roughly 5 points worse in Virginia last November than he did in 2016.
“He’s scared to come,” McAuliffe told Yahoo News. “He’s scared of me. I don’t think he’ll come. He’s scared to do it. I’ve beaten him twice badly here,” he said, plainly relishing the prospect of Trump fulminating about stolen elections as Youngkin stood awkwardly beside him. (An aide to Trump did not make him available for a conversation about the Virginia gubernatorial contest.)
The changing dynamics of the race have McAuliffe, who is still leading in nearly every poll, casting himself as something of an underdog. He is quick to note, for example, that Youngkin loaned his campaign $12 million last summer. “That’s a lot of money,” McAuliffe says.
McAuliffe is no pauper himself, and is a legendary Democratic fundraiser to boot. He left office in 2018 (Virginia does not allow for consecutive terms) a popular but not transformative governor, one who yearned to dive back into the action as soon as he could. In 2019, he read the room and announced that he wouldn’t be seeking the White House. Two years later, he won the Democratic primary in the gubernatorial race, defeating three African American candidates, two of them women, and a democratic socialist who’d served in the U.S. Marines.
Throughout the summer, McAuliffe never gave the sense that he took victory for granted, the way his friend Hillary Clinton had in 2016 in the presidential race against Trump. But he also can’t be pleased with Youngkin’s tenacity, which may reflect a lack of enthusiasm for a candidate who’d already been governor once, or simply the fact that while Virginia is blue, it is certainly not Vermont (which, by the way, is governed by a Republican).
With the election now only a month away, McAuliffe has set out to make the case to Virginians that Youngkin is an “extreme right-wing candidate who is out of the mainstream,” one whose views on guns, abortion and gay rights do not accord with those of most Virginians.
The dynamics in Virginia recall those in California, where earlier this month Gov. Gavin Newsom fought off a Republican-led recall by painting his top opponent, conservative radio personality Larry Elder, as a Trump clone. Turning the recall election into a referendum on Trump gave Newsom an easy victory.
Democrats believe they can run the same playbook in Virginia this November and then nationwide in the 2022 congressional midterms.
At the very least, McAuliffe subscribes to that premise. “They’re two peas in a pod,” he says of Youngkin and Trump, arguing that as governor, his opponent would badly bungle the pandemic endgame with his alleged resistance to public health measures. Youngkin’s opposition to vaccine mandates has emerged as a crucial fulcrum in the last several weeks, and could prove especially consequential in the northern Virginia suburbs.
“He doesn't believe that a nurse in a cancer ward should be required to be vaccinated," McAuliffe says of Youngkin’s delicate position, which has tried to straddle both mainstream and hard-right views on vaccination. And he notes that Youngkin has lavished praise on Ron DeSantis, the increasingly unpopular Florida governor whose Trumpian response to a Delta-variant-fueled surge has been widely criticized.
“COVID is still the No. 1 concern on voters' minds,” McAuliffe says in reflection on the California recall results. “And it’s not going away anytime soon.”
Abortion has also emerged as a leading concern in the wake of S.B.6, the restrictive new Texas law that essentially prohibits terminating a pregnancy after the sixth week. At a McAuliffe fundraiser in northern Virginia earlier this month, Vice President Kamala Harris cast him as a bulwark against similar legislation. Standing in front of a small but well-heeled crowd, the vice president called the contest a “bellwether for what will happen in the rest of the country" in next year’s midterms.
"Take a look at what's happening in Texas. Can you believe that ... stuff?" the vice president asked rhetorically, her dramatic pause indicating that she had intended to use a stronger word. “The reality is that when they think that they can get away with something in one state, then they try to come to other states to get it done," she warned.
If all politics were once local, as the famous saying goes, the opposite seems to be the case today, at least in part because Trump was the most polarizing and omnipresent figure in modern American history. In ways explicit and not, he remains at the center of the national discourse, toying with a 2024 run and trolling both opponents and onetime supporters, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Trump says this incentivizes both sides to make the race about him, or at the very least about his brand of politics.
Running for governor in Arkansas, former Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders openly admitted to the anti-local strategy, offering no apology for her approach. “Because if you're not paying attention to what is happening in this country, you're missing what is going on,” she said.
Those happen to be the very terms on which McAuliffe is happy to play, especially since Richmond is a lot closer to Washington, D.C., than is Little Rock.
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