Politicians who think their party is going to have a good election cycle love to point sagaciously to signs and omens in advance. And sometimes special and off-year elections really do serve as barometers for midterm and presidential elections just ahead. Republicans are psyched out of their skulls about 2022, in which they have reason to believe they will win control of the U.S. House, and perhaps the U.S. Senate, while enhancing their strength in state governments. But there have been slim pickings in the way of special elections to serve as harbingers this year, so a couple of statewide elections are bearing the burden of being treated as bellwethers.
Republicans had hoped California’s recall election might give them something to cheer and raise money around, but Gavin Newsom’s crushing defeat of the recall effort left them sorting through the returns for scattered signs of future gains and wanting to change the subject. New Jersey’s gubernatorial contest in November doesn’t look particularly competitive, with Democrat Phil Murphy cruising toward a second term. So the GOP’s California Dreamin’ has switched quickly into an intense focus on Virginia’s gubernatorial race featuring former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and Republican private-equity executive and self-funder Glenn Youngkin. Early voting began this week.
Virginia used to be a big-time bellwether, but in a fairly predictable way: From 1977 through 2009, the party controlling the White House lost nine consecutive gubernatorial elections. The candidate who broke that streak, as it happens, was Terry McAuliffe in 2013. Now the Old Dominion’s bellwether reputation has morphed into that of a reliably Democratic state. As Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter noted, “Virginia has also become a bluer state since 2009. Not only have Republicans not won a statewide race since then, no GOP statewide nominee for governor, Senate, or president has won more than 44 percent of the vote since 2014.” Even in 2014 it took Democratic senator Mark Warner sleep-walking through a reelection campaign in a very good Republican year to keep things interesting.
Youngkin has given the GOP fresh hope because of the immense wealth he is pouring into his campaign, and the outsider-businessman persona he has cultivated, which contrasts nicely with the political warhorse McAuliffe, who was probably doing political fundraisers in elementary school. The Republican also proved deft in being sufficiently Trump-y to win the GOP nominating contest, while encouraging the perception now that he is a “centrist” with great appeal to the suburban swing voters in NoVa who swung heavily toward Democrats in 2018 and 2020.
In the first debate between the two candidates, Youngkin walked a ledge, distancing himself from Trump’s Big Lie and proclaiming himself pro-vaxx, but anti-vaxx-mandate. McAuliffe plugged his experience, basically saying Virginia shouldn’t change donkeys in the middle of a pandemic. The first-time-candidate Republican, of course, declared himself a breath of fresh air, which can get stale in a long campaign.
So far all seven public polls of the general election show McAuliffe in the lead, but not by a comfortable margin: The RealClearPolitics polling averages have T-Mac up by five points. But the very latest poll, from the Washington Post/Schar School, showed McAuliffe’s lead at 50-47 among likely voters, with some signs that the dreaded “enthusiasm gap” may afflict Democrats.
The proximity to Virginia of the Beltway’s vast hordes of political staffers, consultants, scribblers, and gabbers gives every competitive race in the Commonwealth the feeling of a backyard brawl between the national parties. The advance spinning will start in earnest soon, with Republicans trying to decide if Youngkin can actually win or if a close loss will be enough to claim a moral victory that will surely lead to a midterm landslide for the GOP. McAuliffe could do a lot for Democratic morale by making Youngkin spend all his money and then beating him soundly.