the inside game

It’s Election Day in Virginia and Democrats Are Very Nervous

Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/AFP via Getty Images

Virginians will soon get yet another reminder that Tuesday’s toss-up gubernatorial election has a lot more riding on it than usual: a round of robocalls from Barack Obama, recorded on Monday, that urge them to vote for Terry McAuliffe, Democrats familiar with the last-minute push told Intelligencer.

By now his is a familiar voice. If you live in the state and you’ve turned on your TV in recent days, you’ve probably seen the former president staring back, urging you to vote for McAuliffe over Republican Glenn Youngkin, since Virginia’s choice will make “a statement about what direction we’re headed in as a country.” When he visited the state for McAuliffe, he recorded a radio ad, too, and a series of videos urging early voting, and he’s also recorded another robocall for local-level Democrats and sent out a text supporting them, too. If you’ve tuned into or read the local news — or tried to watch something on YouTube only to be interrupted by pre-roll video — you’ve probably also seen that Joe Biden has been stopping by to send a similar message, that Kamala Harris has as well, and that Stacey Abrams also wants you to vote for McAuliffe.

The last-minute blitz is getting increasingly urgent after months of quiet Democratic confidence gave way to a final, nervous sprint into Election Day. The race is now a real-life, genuine, no-one-knows-what’s-gonna-happen toss-up in a state that’s only had one GOP governor in the last two decades. As the Democratic surrogates deliver their final appeals, part of the message — which might sound dire if said out loud — tends to be left unspoken: If McAuliffe loses, it could irreparably complicate Biden’s agenda on Capitol Hill, spell gloom for the midterms, and set off a wave of soul-searching about Biden’s political strength and the wisdom of Democrats’ continued messaging about Donald Trump.

Obama is still Democrats’ most popular figure — and arguably the best bet for rallying base Democratic voters who are lukewarm (or less) on the Biden administration nearly a year into the post-Trump era. National polling shows the president’s approval rating sinking to the low-40s with the pandemic lingering and his legislative agenda languishing in D.C.

In Washington, the conversations and planning sessions about Virginia are getting more and more anxious. Last week, Democratic representatives from Virginia and New Jersey — the other state with a governor’s race tomorrow, albeit one that should be safer territory for incumbent Phil Murphy, even as it’s narrowed — met with Nancy Pelosi and warned that losses for their gubernatorial candidates could lead to a significantly darkened political landscape within the caucus. So, some said, she should push to at least pass Biden’s infrastructure bill. The group — which included Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Jennifer Wexton, and Gerry Connolly, and New Jersey’s Mikie Sherrill, Donald Norcross, Josh Gottheimer, and Tom Malinowski, according to people familiar with the meeting — was not entirely ideologically uniform. But it was composed of more suburban moderates than progressives, and with disagreements still standing between those wings, Pelosi and Senate leaders were unable to find enough agreement to pass any of the legislation, leaving the members frustrated by the lack of progress. Their Senate colleagues weren’t spared the disappointment either: Both Virginia Democrats, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have privately tried making a similar case to their colleagues, to no avail.

It’s all adding up to a tense final 48 hours for Democrats, who are only now reckoning with how to talk about the dynamic that they think has been most powerful in dragging McAuliffe down: frustration, or malaise, with the lack of progress on Biden’s promises. With both parties now working to turn out their base voters rather than winning over elusive (and possibly fictional) undecided Virginians, Democrats are relying on Obama’s calls. Meanwhile, some Republicans are happy to have Trump calling in for a “tele-rally” in the final hours, even as Youngkin refuses to be seen with Trump himself and McAuliffe tries tying the two together.

The uncertainty has some leading Democrats considering how they would spin a loss — some who’ve been engaged with the race have floated frustration that Biden is in Europe, not Virginia, on election eve, but these complaints have mostly been half-hearted, given Biden’s months’ worth of engagement in the race (he and McAuliffe are longtime friends), Harris’s appearances, and the incongruity of this argument alongside concerns about Biden’s sinking popularity.

Some Democrats also voiced frustration that national pundits have been labeling Virginia a fully blue state. Yes, they concede, Democratic presidential nominees have won it since 2008 and statewide races have consistently gone to Democrats as the population increases, particularly in its north. But its rural areas have been turning deeper red and Democrats have struggled to maintain their statewide margins there. At the same time, prior to this year, Republicans have had a recent tendency to nominate far-right candidates — including Ken Cuccinelli and Corey Stewart — generally unacceptable to suburban moderates. Youngkin, a longtime private-equity executive often seen a fleece vest, is more reminiscent of Romney 2012. Plus, this year’s electorate is projected to be as conservative as any in recent years. (When McAuliffe was first elected governor in 2013 he was the only candidate in the modern era to win the seat with his own party in the White House.)

Nonetheless, there’s now a near-consensus among McAuliffe’s allies that they can’t avoid the fact he has been drawn into a close race by a difficult national environment, underpinned by frustration with Biden’s Washington: Neither he nor Youngkin have dramatically changed their campaign pitches, but what once looked like a relatively easy McAuliffe victory has now evened to an effective tie in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. That’s just a year after Biden won the state by 10 points. So they can hardly blame Princess Blanding, a left-wing third-party candidate, if Youngkin wins. (McAuliffe’s 2013 win over Cuccinelli came with under 50 percent of the vote, as a libertarian candidate got a significant chunk of conservative voters.) For months, Democrats have been arguing that Youngkin is unlikely to get to 50 percent, but now a victory might be possible with 48 or 49. (If Blanding is likely to take any votes from McAuliffe, it would be among Black voters and young white progressives; McAuliffe has been focused on turning out Black voters in recent weeks, but when Bernie Sanders hit the campaign trail this weekend it was for New Jersey’s Murphy, not in Virginia.)

The anxiety, of course, belies the reality that McAuliffe is still in good position to win. McAuliffe has leaned heavily into a final push linking Youngkin to Trump, especially with news of the ex-president’s audio appearance. And multiple Democratic operatives working on the race on Monday told me they’d heard positive analyses from people close to McAuliffe about early voting patterns.

But after the 2016 and 2020 presidential races, they’re choosing to take those reports with a mountain of salt. And they’re similarly wary about believing the latest rumor in their circles — that some annoyed Biden voters have been unlikely to answer pollsters in recent weeks, a reversal of the Trump-era problem that’s dogged political-data types for years. If that’s true, McAuliffe is in better position than they believe. Then again, as I wrote last week, no one is quite sure what polls or data they can even trust right now. Multiple Virginia Democrats reached out after I published to tell me this was top of mind near McAuliffe’s camp. That was shortly before a Fox News poll showed Youngkin in the lead for the first time. “Haven’t read your story yet,” texted one senior Democrat engaged in the race, as soon as I tweeted a link to it. “But definitely terrified about polling accuracy!”

It’s Election Day in Virginia and Democrats Are Very Nervous