For months, McAuliffe has tried to energize Democratic voters by painting his opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, as a Donald Trump “wannabee,” who would reverse progressive gains in a state that the former President lost by 10 points last year. Youngkin has accepted Trump’s endorsement but skillfully kept his distance while centering his campaign on local issues like education and trying to portray himself as an advocate for parents.
In the final days on the campaign trail, McAuliffe referred to Youngkin as “Glenn Trumpkin” and argued that a Youngkin win in Virginia would embolden Trump ahead of possible 2024 White House bid. Youngkin has tapped into some of Trump’s rhetoric to appeal to the GOP base — talking about “election integrity” early in the race, for example — but steered clear of the telerally that Trump held Monday night for the Republican ticket.
When he was first elected in 2013, McAuliffe defied Virginia’s traditional pattern of electing a governor from the opposite party of the president who won the White House the previous year. But few expected this race to be quite this close as Virginia has increasingly trended Democratic. The latest Washington Post-Schar School poll from October showed Youngkin posting an 18-point advantage among independent likely voters, a significant increase from the month before.
Virginia’s gubernatorial election isn’t the only contest on the ballot Tuesday. The commonwealth is also voting for lieutenant governor, with either nominee poised to make history as the first woman elected to the job and first woman of color elected to statewide office. New Jersey is also voting for governor, in a state Biden carried by nearly 16 points last year, and several major cities are voting for mayor. But the governor’s race in Virginia — where all 100 House of Delegates seats are also up — is by far the highest-stakes contest with the most to say about the direction of the country heading into 2022 and 2024.
It will be another test of how effective it is for Democrats to tie downballot Republicans to Trump when he’s not on the ballot. That strategy paid off well for Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California when he avoided being removed from office earlier this year, but Virginia is nowhere near as blue as the Golden State, nor is Youngkin as easily painted as a Trump acolyte as was Newsom’s GOP opponent.
Despite McAuliffe’s efforts to demonize Youngkin as a Trump warrior, who has said the former President “represents so much of why I’m running,” the Republican’s campaign has presented him as a non-threatening, fleece-vest-wearing Northern Virginia dad and businessman who coached basketball in his free time.
Youngkin is wooing suburban voters by digging into the GOP’s culture wars — promising to protect law enforcement funding amid concerns about rising crime nationally, rejecting Covid-19 vaccine mandates for teachers and state workers, and vowing that Virginia schools will not “teach our children to view everything through a lens of race.” At a time when the electorate has increasingly embraced newcomers to politics, Youngkin has portrayed his rival as the ultimate political insider as the former chair of the Democratic National Committee and a leading fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton over decades.
In a message keyed toward suburban women, Youngkin has charged that McAuliffe would allow government to stand between parents and their children when it comes to education, seizing on a comment from the Democrat in a debate that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
One of Youngkin’s closing ads featured Fairfax County mother and conservative activist Laura Murphy claiming that a book her then-high school son was assigned to read gave him nightmares. The book, which the ad does not mention by name, was Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which is about the horrors of slavery. Murphy had led a campaign against the teaching of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, leading to two bills — eventually vetoed by McAuliffe — that would have allowed parents to reject certain assignments they viewed as explicit.
Democrats jumped on the ad, with McAuliffe calling it a “racist dog whistle” and arguing his Republican opponent was using education to divide Virginia by pitting parents against parents, and parents against teachers.
A difficult lift for Democrats despite Virginia’s recent blue streak
McAuliffe, who previously served as governor from 2014 to 2018, has been laboring against the exhaustion of Democratic voters, a more energized Republican base and Biden’s waning popularity. A chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a Covid-19 surge fueled by the Delta variant and sluggish economy have all taken a toll on Biden, who has struggled to unite his party around his agenda.
Progressive and moderate Democrats in Congress have spent months wrangling over the size and scope of the President’s climate and social safety net package, but even if there’s movement on that $1.75 million economic plan and an accompanying bipartisan infrastructure package this week, it’ll be far too late to boost McAuliffe in a state where early voting began weeks ago.
In the closing months of the campaign, without a tangible achievement to point to from Democratic-controlled Washington, McAuliffe didn’t hide his frustration. He demanded that members of Congress “do your job and quit the posturing,” in an interview with CNN.
The national mood has soured amid lingering fears, restrictions and frustrations related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertain economic recovery. Voters are concerned about inflation, the higher prices they are paying as the holiday season approaches and supply chain bottlenecks that have disrupted the economy. The latest CNN Poll of Polls finds the President at 42% approval to 51% disapproval among US adults, and in a national NBC News poll released Sunday, 7 in 10 said the country is going in the wrong direction.
It wouldn’t be unusual for commonwealth voters to reject the party in power in the White House. But there’s even more pressure on McAuliffe to buck that trend again, given that Virginia hasn’t elected a GOP governor since 2009 and has been carried by Democrats in every presidential election since 2004.
That’s one reason why, amid concerns about Democratic apathy, McAuliffe brought in the party’s biggest stars including Biden and former President Barack Obama to try to boost his fortunes before Tuesday’s election. In a Friday night appearance with McAuliffe in Norfolk, Vice President Kamala Harris called the race a “bellwether for what happens in the rest of the country,” arguing that “what happens in Virginia will in large part determine what happens in 2022, 2024 and on.”
The debates have featured sharp policy contrasts between the two candidates. Youngkin has argued that McAuliffe’s plans for government spending are too expensive and says he would fuel an economic revival in Virginia by cutting taxes, including the “grocery tax” which Youngkin says would save Virginians $1,500 in the first year of implementation.
McAuliffe has promised a $2 billion investment in education — twice the amount he proposed in his first term — and touted 20 plans he has developed to lead the state out of the Covid pandemic. He has called for Covid-19 vaccine mandates for state teachers, health care workers and other essential employees, arguing that Youngkin’s resistance to those measures would jeopardize the state’s recovery.
But Youngkin says while he has asked everyone in Virginia “to please get the vaccine,” he believes firing workers who do not comply with vaccine mandates could cripple the state economically.
“We need people on the job. To make life difficult, that’s no way to go serve Virginians,” Youngkin said in the candidates’ final debate. “We can do this. We can in fact protect lives and livelihoods.”