the inside game

Virginia’s Election Is Breaking the Rules

Democrats nationalize the governor’s race despite the mess in Biden’s Washington.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images/Shutterstock

Usually, when Washington is at a decisive consensus that one party is in disarray — that its next election cycle will be messy, that its wings can’t agree, that voters aren’t convinced by its standard bearer — its candidates follow a simple formula: Ditch the national party and focus instead on local issues. But with three weeks until Virginia votes for its next governor, the electoral equation has been scrambled. From Richmond to Virginia Beach, it is Democrats who are working to nationalize the campaign despite President Biden’s dipping approval ratings and Republican optimism about next year’s midterms, a move Biden’s White House has dialed into in recent weeks, while right-wingers are trying to turn voters’ focus toward the hyperlocal.

Terry McAuliffe, the former governor running for his old job, has been talking about what he accomplished in Richmond but has recently spent an increasing amount of his time and ad budget focusing on his opponent’s ties to Donald Trump. Glenn Youngkin — the Republican private-equity exec who was so little-known locally that early campaign stories had to use old news photos of his appearances in Davos — is, on the other hand, contorting himself to avoid invoking Trump in front of moderates and suburbanites, while at the same time appearing with conspiracy-spewing Trump allies such as Seb Gorka. Meanwhile, he’s been pitching the final weeks of his campaign as an effort to save Virginia’s schools from, as one local GOP leader put it to me last week, “critical race theory, wokeness, and political correctness.”

It’s all made for an appropriately portentous preview of the next year of American politics, where every semi-competitive race is now treated as if it holds the secret key to long-term electoral success.

While top Democrats in Washington work out how best to deploy Biden himself in the home stretch, operatives and elected officials have called on Barack Obama, First Lady Jill Biden, and Stacey Abrams to campaign for McAuliffe, in part because they acknowledge his loss would create waves of commentary about Democrats’ electoral struggles in the Biden era. (McAuliffe’s roughly eight-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling average in early August had shrunk to less than three points as of mid-October.)

More substantively, though, they’re concerned that it might actually be true: White House aides have focused on the race in recent weeks, asking for regular updates from the ground, not least because they see the contest as the first genuinely competitive race in an important state where voters will, directly or indirectly, render a verdict on Democrats’ handling of the pandemic. Furthermore, they see McAuliffe’s fate as directly tied to that of Biden’s legislative priorities on Capitol Hill, even if the measures currently mired in negotiations are beside the point in most Virginia voters’ eyes. If Democratic wrangling over Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill fails at the end of October, they believe, it could be a huge blow to McAuliffe’s pitch of competent Democratic leadership with the election so soon after. Conversely, a McAuliffe loss in early November could doom Biden’s further legislative pushes if it spooks marginal Democrats in Congress, people close to Biden and McAuliffe both fear.

The issue is that while Virginia has trended Democratic for more than a decade now, this year’s electorate is projected by local strategists to be the most conservative one in years, befitting the state’s long-standing tendency to elect a governor from the opposite party of the president. McAuliffe, who won in 2013 after Obama’s re-election, is the lone politician to have bucked that trend in the past half-century.

Youngkin, meanwhile, has been trying to focus his base’s attention on local curricula, using the specter of critical race theory in particular to rile up conservatives and attract some parents in the heavily suburban state who are less enthused by his calls to “audit” its voting machines. “What nobody saw coming is the visceral reaction suburban parents would have to the school issues, and the big question on everybody’s mind is whether, in the post-Trump era, these local issues that are getting so much attention energize the pro-Youngkin voters more than the pro-McAuliffe voters,” said John Whitbeck, a former state GOP chairman. “Youngkin is riding an issue he would’ve been riding anyway: Every Republican that’s running in a suburban district, or a place that’s trending blue like Virginia, is going to run on education.”

What’s not yet obvious is whether this can be a winning issue, targeted at the kind of swingy suburban voters who once dominated Virginia politics, if it’s coming from a place of right-wing anger. “There’s no question that Republican voters are enthusiastic about voting. The question is: Are there enough of them in Virginia to outweigh Democrats showing up in an off-year election?” said Josh Schwerin, a former long-time McAuliffe aide. No one in or close to either the McAuliffe camp or the White House has denied that parents of all ideological stripes entered the fall extremely nervous about the coming school year after 17 months of pandemic education, but their public pronouncements suggest they think this latest wave of conservative curriculum talk is a fad and far less relevant than COVID-based schooling fears, even if it’s a potentially powerful one with some voters.

After a few days of Youngkin promoting McAuliffe’s statement that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach, the Democrat replied with an ad warning that Youngkin would cut school budgets. “Republicans always find something to gin up their outrage machine,” said Schwerin. “I’m old enough to remember when the ‘crisis’ for 2022 was going to be @POTUS’ failure to open schools,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted earlier this week, pointing to a report that 96 percent of the nation’s public schools have reopened in person. (The two operations are close: McAuliffe’s campaign manager, a longtime senior Democratic aide in the state, ran Virginia for Biden, and Biden himself offered McAuliffe a job as his presidential campaign’s finance chairman back in 2019.)

Ever since Obama won Virginia in 2008, statewide races there have been shadowed by questions of just how much the state’s rapid suburbanization, especially outside of D.C., has changed its politics. Every four years, polls tighten in the final weeks. And, so far, every four years Democrats have won. The margins have at times been far too close for comfort — when McAuliffe won in 2013, it was by less than 3 points — and the state’s most recent electoral tradition is for the closing days to feature a mind-numbingly dumb sideshow that pundits cast as a game-changer. (On the morning of the 2017 vote that elected Ralph Northam, a Morning Joe panel unanimously predicted his loss and pointed to the release of former DNC chair Donna Brazile’s book about the 2016 election as a sign of Democratic discord that would doom him.) Even the most recent big-picture question is predictable: Can Democrats win without Trump on the ballot? The races of 2017 and 2018 provided an answer (yes, clearly), but still it lingers on cable and Twitter.

Yet McAuliffe’s closing message is recognizable, predictable, and understandable, too.

When he voted early this month, he was surrounded by campaign signs proclaiming, simply, YOUNGKIN = TRUMP, and his recent ads about Youngkin’s theoretical education cuts featured not just Betsy DeVos but Trump, too, as have a huge range of his spots and campaign-trail lines about his opponent. Trump himself hasn’t visited the state for Youngkin, but McAuliffe has been transparent about trying to lure the ex-president for months now, as well as highlighting every time he mentions Youngkin.

In a state where Trump remains unpopular — he lost it by six points in 2016 and ten in 2020 — there’s nothing surprising about it, even to Republicans. “When I was chairman of the party, I asked my executive director, ‘When are [Democrats] gonna stop campaigning on the war on women?’ And he said, ‘When it stops working,’” Whitbeck said. “If McAuliffe loses, we may see the end of the Trump bogeyman every Democrat has rolled out for four years. If he wins, they’re going to keep using it.”

Last week, Trump argued in a statement that no Republican should vote until “the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020” was resolved. This was roughly an hour and a half before the kickoff of a Richmond rally that Steve Bannon was headlining for Youngkin’s ticket. The event began with a pledge of allegiance to an American flag that, the organizers said, was present at the Capitol riot, which they called a “peaceful rally with Donald J. Trump.” Youngkin didn’t show, and his running mate, Winsome Sears, who’d been billed as a speaker, left before the speeches started.

But Republicans’ secretary-of-state candidate earned a standing ovation for insisting to the crowd that “Donald Trump won,” which was shortly before Trump himself called in to deem Youngkin “a great gentleman” and to gin up the crowd by insisting “we won in 2020, the most corrupt election in the history of our country, probably one of the most corrupt anywhere, but we’re gonna win it again.” That, in turn, was just before state senator Amanda Chase, whom Youngkin beat in the primary but has recently embraced on the trail, called for the return and “gold plat[ing]” of Virginia’s Confederate monuments.

Within minutes, McAuliffe’s campaign account was tweeting about the event, making sure as many voters knew about it as possible. Not long after the rally ended, he was sharing video from it. The next morning, he called a press conference, just in case anyone still hadn’t heard about it.

Later that day, Youngkin tried distancing himself from the event, insisting “there is no room for violence” when asked about the flag. This was too little, too late: McAuliffe’s campaign had already posted a new ad with footage from the previous evening.

Virginia’s Election Is Breaking the Rules