Is It Time for Democrats to Panic About Virginia — and the Midterms?

Democrat Terry McAuliffe might have slipped up in his second and final debate with Glenn Youngkin, but the Republican has made his own mistakes in his campaign for governor of Virginia. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The only political media narrative more durable than “Democrats in disarray,” it seems, is “Democrats in full panic.” And as President Joe Biden’s job-approval rating lingers underwater and the struggle to enact his agenda in Congress drags on, there’s a lot of justified pessimism about his party’s ability to hang on to a governing trifecta in the 2022 midterms.

But what may turn fear and worry into panic is a defeat in the November 2 Virginia gubernatorial contest. So the big question is: Could that happen, and if so, what does it mean for the future? Here are some (mostly reassuring) points for Democrats to consider.

Yes, McAuliffe can lose to Youngkin, but don’t bet on it

The case for Terry McAuliffe’s likely victory is simple: Democrats haven’t lost a statewide race in Virginia since 2009. In the last gubernatorial contest, in 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie by a margin of 8.9 percent. Biden defeated Donald Trump in the commonwealth by 10.1 percent. Virginia is blue and getting bluer, it seems.

But then there is Virginia’s famous reluctance to elect governors from the party that controls the White House. It didn’t happen for an amazing 40 years from 1973 until 2013. Yes, McAuliffe was the one who broke the streak— but he won by a spare 2.6 percent against a flawed and underfunded conservative ideologue, Ken Cuccinelli. In the previous governor’s race, in 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell trounced Democrat Creigh Deeds by 17 percentage points even though Barack Obama had ended the GOP’s long presidential winning streak in Virginia the year before. So it’s true that Old Dominion’s blue hue can be overstated, particularly when Democrats control the White House; the state’s proximity to Washington and its powerful media outlets clearly contributes to a regular nationalization of elections there.

Another reason Democrats fear a Virginia defeat this year is Republicans appear to have an enthusiasm advantage in the state, just as they do in much of the country. But McAuliffe has regularly (if narrowly) led Republican Glenn Youngkin in polls that deploy likely-voter screens.

As for the campaign itself, both candidates appear to have made a significant unforced error. In the second and final candidate debate on September 28, McAuliffe defended a bill he vetoed as governor that would have let kids “opt out” of reading assignments that included sexually explicit materials parents found offensive. Taken out of context, his remark “Yeah, I stopped the bill that I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” has been rich fodder for Youngkin’s claim that McAuliffe is loyal to Education Department bureaucrats and teachers unions rather than parents.

More recently, Youngkin was caught flat-footed by a “Take Back Virginia” rally headlined by Steve Bannon that included not only testaments on behalf of Youngkin (including one by phone from Trump) but a Pledge of Allegiance to a flag that had been brandished at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. This incident reinforced McAuliffe’s effort to tie his opponent to Trump and Republican extremism.

The race could go either way, but McAuliffe remains the favorite, albeit not with any great confidence.

Virginia isn’t an infallible bellwether

Virginia’s history of punishing the party of the president in gubernatorial contests hasn’t really made the state a bellwether for subsequent midterm elections, which usually cut against the party in the White House there and everywhere else. On the rare occasions when the president’s party did make midterm gains, Virginia wasn’t prophetic at all. In 1997, Republican Jim Gilmore won the governorship over Don Beyer by a landslide the year before Democrats made gains in the House. And in 2001, Democrat Mark Warner solidly defeated Republican Mark Earley just before Republicans made House and Senate gains in the 2002 midterms.

The most recent “prophetic” Virginia result was probably the McDonnell landslide in 2009, which occurred a year before the national Republican landslide that flipped control of the House (and netted the GOP three seats in Virginia). But even if Youngkin wins, he isn’t going to win by the 59-41 margin by which McDonnell won, so it wouldn’t represent grounds for Democratic panic.

2022 isn’t going to be another 2010 anyway

Those pointing to a 2022 fiasco for Democrats often compare the upcoming election to the 2010 disaster that occurred during Obama’s first term. While the odds are good Democrats will lose control of the House in 2022 (unless Biden’s job-approval rating turns around and begins to resemble the 60-plus percent numbers enjoyed by Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002), Democrats just don’t have the kind of “exposure” they suffered from in 2010 and other midterms with catastrophic results, as Ronald Brownstein points out:

The biggest midterm losses have typically come after elections (like those in 1912, 1964, and 2008) in which the majority party secured significant gains — forcing it to defend seats deep in the other party’s territory. House Democrats already surrendered in 2020 many of the most Republican-leaning seats they had captured two years before. 

Thanks ironically to their underwhelming performance in 2020 House elections, Democrats don’t control enough marginal turf to generate anything like 2010’s 63-seat loss. Only seven Democrats hold House seats in districts carried by Trump in 2020; going into 2010, 49 House Democrats were in districts won by John McCain despite Obama’s big national win. You can certainly make a good argument that partisan polarization has reduced the likelihood of big swings in virtually all national elections. After 2010, it took Democrats four election cycles to regain control of the House. If they lose the House in 2022, the road back could be shorter.

Chill, Donkeys!

Some of the “Democrats in full panic” syndrome probably stems from certain partisan characteristics: All else being equal, Democrats tend to see glasses as half full while Republicans perpetually spin future elections as already won (and in the era of Big Liar Trump, past losses as won too). But history and current trends suggest that while some painful House losses are likely in store for the Donkey Party next year, it could well hang on to the Senate and win some key gubernatorial races as well. And there’s really no reason at all to assume Biden can’t be reelected in 2024 if he chooses to run for a second term.

For now, Democrats should fret less about Virginia and focus more on securing accomplishments in Congress that will serve as a legacy no matter what happens in 2022.

Should Democrats Panic About Virginia — and the Midterms?