McAuliffe crisscrossed the state over the weekend, casting the Virginia elections as a chance for Democrats to validate their eight years of leadership here in the commonwealth’s capital and, after spending millions of dollars to tie Youngkin to Donald Trump, as a potent way to deliver Republicans and the former President a defeat ahead of critical elections in 2022 and 2024.
Youngkin, splitting his time between vote rich areas around the Washington, DC, suburbs and rural stretches of western Virginia over the weekend, focused intently on local issues, only giving a passing acknowledgment of the national significance of the race.
Youngkin and McAuliffe largely circled each other on Monday. They both held morning events in Roanoke, the largest city in the western reaches on the commonwealth, and afternoon gatherings in Richmond, the commonwealth’s capital. Both will end their evening with events in Northern Virginia.
Youngkin enters the final full day of campaigning with significant momentum. Polls show him locked in a dead heat with McAuliffe in a state that President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points just a year ago. Youngkin’s events in the final days of the campaign have been energetic, often sizable, affairs, with Republicans increasingly enthusiastic that they have a shot to win their first statewide race in Virginia in more than a decade.
McAuliffe’s weekend was a frenetic one, with the former governor — the Democrat held the job from 2014 to 2018 — jumping to numerous, often smaller, events. And his messaging was clear: Now is not a time for complacency.
“Let’s go knock on those doors. Do not sleep for the next 48 hours. Sleep’s overrated,” he said at an event in Henrico, Virginia — an echo of his oft repeated “sleep when you’re dead” mantra.
Both candidates spent Saturday stressing the need for voters to cast ballots early and it appears their efforts were successful. More than 1.1 million Virginians cast ballots early in the gubernatorial contest, according to the commonwealth’s Department of Elections, a significant number in the close contest.
‘The entire nation is watching this’
McAuliffe has closed his campaign with the same strategy he’s used all along: Liken Youngkin to Trump. At events across the commonwealth, McAuliffe argued not only that Youngkin was tied directly to the former President, but that a Democratic loss in Virginia would help a possible Trump presidential run in 2024.
“Trump wants to win here so he can announce for president for 2024. That’s the stakes of this election. He’s trying to get himself off the map,” McAuliffe told an audience that was about to door knock in Manassas, Virginia on Sunday. “He wants to win here Tuesday and Wednesday, Donald Trump announces he running in 2024. Are we going to allow that to go on.”
Later in the event, after McAuliffe hit Youngkin on a host of issues, the Democrat said, “That’s what you’ll get with Glenn Trumpkin.”
While there are no indications Trump plans to imminently announce a 2024 run, the former President has not kept himself out of the race. Trump, who lost Virginia in both 2016 and 2020, plans to hold a tele-rally on Monday evening in Virginia, and while Youngkin has said he will not participate, the McAuliffe campaign has seized on the event as yet another way to tie the two Republicans together.
Trump, too, issued a statement on the race Monday, touting the fact that he and Youngkin “get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies.”
Youngkin has given little rhetorical time to Trump, largely dodging questions when asked about the former President and declining to appear with him at Monday evening’s tele-rally.
Instead, the businessman-turned-politician has kept a laser-like focus on local issues, hoping to animate a series of grievances aimed at Democratic leadership in Richmond and Washington, from what is taught in Virginia schools to how strict the commonwealth should be in the fight against the coronavirus.
But as the race has tightened and Republicans have grown hopeful that they, for the first time since Bob McDonnell in 2009, have a chance to win a statewide race in Virginia, Youngkin has begun to acknowledge the national implications of the race.
“The entire nation is watching this. Why?” Youngkin asked rhetorically on Monday in Richmond. “All eyes are on Virginia. The nation needs us to vote for them too. It needs us to vote for them too.”
Republicans have been demoralized by the losses at the statewide level, causing Republican voters outside the Northern Virginia suburbs — where population growth has helped tilt the state towards Democrats — to look at the Washington area with anger.
“The vote in Southwest Virginia counts more than any vote in the entire commonwealth of Virginia,” Youngkin said at a barbecue in Gate City on Sunday, adding that Tuesday’s election “is going to decide the future of our commonwealth, not for a few years but I think for a long, long time. Because it truly is California East or the Virginia that we know and love. And we’re going to get the Virginia that we know and love back.”
But in order to win in Virginia, Youngkin knows he can’t write off the areas in Northern Virginia, which is why he spent much of Saturday stump in the wealthy Washington suburbs. These areas, once home to reliable Republican voters, fled the Republican Party in 2016 and 2020, a direct reaction to Trump.
When asked whether he could win those voters back, Youngkin didn’t flinch: “We are reversing that trend.”
“These issues are universal,” Youngkin said after listing his positions on taxes, education and crime. “And this is why we’re bringing these people together and we’re going to make some really surprising gains across the commonwealth.”
‘This year Virginia is a bellwether’
Although the election on Tuesday will determine the statewide leadership in Virginia, there are significant national implications to the race, too.
If McAuliffe wins, Democrats will take the victory as validation that a state that has trended blue over the last decade still stands behind Biden’s agenda and against Republicans, even if Trump is not on the ballot. History is not on Democrats’ side: Since the 1970s, the winner of Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election has nearly always come from the party in opposition to the White House. The only exception was in 2013, when McAuliffe won his first gubernatorial term a year after then-President Barack Obama won reelection.
For Youngkin, a win would reverberate far beyond Virginia, delivering the GOP a jolt of momentum heading into 2022 and crushing the morale of Democrats. And although each campaign is different and Youngkin, who came into the race as largely a blank slate with unlimited money, is a unique figure, a possible win would validate his strategy of lauding Trump at times while also keeping him at arm’s length.
That possibility is clearly front of mind for Democrats who will be up for reelection in 2022, like Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a Virginia congresswoman who joined McAuliffe on Sunday. Wexton helped secure the Democratic House majority in 2018 when she defeated her Republican opponent in the suburbs of Washington.
“What they are doing here is they are beta testing this message for the midterms,” Wexton said of Republican messaging in the gubernatorial race. “This year Virginia is a bellwether and all eyes are on Virginia.”
If McAuliffe loses, however, some blame will be shifted to Wexton’s workplace, the US House of Representatives, and Democratic leadership in Washington.
For weeks, Democrats had hoped they would be able to pass a duo of sweeping spending bills, giving Democrats in the commonwealth something tangible to run on in the final days of the contest. But passage has yet to happen and although sources believe they could get a vote as early as Tuesday in the House, that will be far too late for the Virginia campaigns to get any benefit.
For Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, himself a former governor, the Democratic disarray in Washington — and its implications on the gubernatorial contest — has been deeply frustrating.
“(Virginia Sen.) Mark Warner and I started to talk to our Senate colleagues in early October saying, ‘We don’t know how much this will help, but it will help. So, let’s try to do it.’ And I’m not happy that I have some Senate colleagues who just dragged out the negotiations along,” Kaine told CNN on Saturday.
He added: “There’s nothing about the framework that got announced last week that couldn’t have been announced a month ago. So, it is frustrating to me that my colleagues dragged their feet.”