Virginia has become a blue state, with a Democrat winning every top race — for president, senator, or governor — for the past decade. But elections are often close, especially when the national political climate is favorable to Republicans.
Right now, the political climate looks promising again for Republicans. Congressional Democrats are bickering over the legislative process, instead of approving the policies President Biden has proposed. Biden has also looked less than masterly at several other issues, including Afghanistan, the economy and the pandemic. His approval score has dropped to about 45 percent.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense that the Virginia governor’s race — one of two in November, along with New Jersey’s — is so close. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who previously held the job, leads Glenn Youngkin, a Republican and former businessman, by just a few points in the polls. Enough voters seem undecided that either could win.
The race is clearly important for Virginia. It will affect state policies on Covid-19, taxes, education, renewable energy and more. The campaign also offers a preview of some of the key themes Democrats and Republicans are likely to highlight in next year’s midterm elections.
Today I want to look at the pitches the two candidates bring to voters. They highlight not only different points of view, but also different issues — a sign that Youngkin and McAuliffe are largely in agreement on which issues benefit which political party.
Youngkin has a Republican country club background, was a top executive at the Carlyle Group, an investment firm, and now self-funds his campaign with his wealth. He won the Republican nomination with a Trump-friendly campaign following false claims of voter fraud. Since then, Youngkin has tried to appeal to Virginia’s swinging voters, portraying himself as a suburban father and a political outsider whose business know-how will help the economy.
That is his positive message. Many of his ads focused on a negative message, in an effort to tie McAuliffe to what Youngkin calls the “radical left.”
It’s a strategy that helped Republican congressional candidates win some seats in 2020. Like her, Youngkin focuses on slogans and stances adopted by many progressive activists, such as Defund the Police or Abolish ICE. McAuliffe does not hold some of these positions, nor do most elected Democrats. But at a time when politics has become nationalized, some voters view every election as a referendum on an entire political party — judging the Democratic Party in part by its high-profile, progressive wing.
(The Times’ Nick Corasaniti notes that many Virginia race ads focus on national issues rather than local ones.)
In an ad by Youngkin, uniformed sheriffs criticize McAuliffe for accepting endorsements from “extreme Democrats” and praise Youngkin’s plan to reduce crime. Another ad plays a radio clip in which McAuliffe responds to a question about whether he supports abortion restrictions by saying he will be “a brick wall” for abortion rights. During a debate, Youngkin described the situation at the US-Mexico border as “absolute chaos”.
His biggest recent focus has been on a statement McAuliffe made during one of their debates, as part of a discussion about school policies on gender and sexually explicit books: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.” (My colleague Lisa Lerer takes a closer look at the role schools play in the campaign.)
Youngkin is essentially trying to counter “wokeism,” knowing that some progressive Democrats favor views that most Americans don’t — including cuts to police budgets, relatively open immigration policies, and virtually no restrictions on abortion.
Progressives are quick to say that some of these calls are essentially white identity politics, and it’s true. But most problems are also about more than race. And accusing American politicians — or voters — of racism is usually not an effective campaign strategy.
…and McAuliffe’s strategy
McAuliffe’s positive message focused on his track record during his previous term as governor (before he was forced to resign because Virginia prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms). He praises the economy’s performance, low crime rates and his willingness to work with Republicans. McAuliffe’s negative message has attempted to define Youngkin by two things: Trump and Covid.
Trump lost Virginia by 10 points to Biden and fared especially poorly in the suburbs of Northern Virginia that had voted Republican a generation ago. If the governor’s race is a referendum on the national Republican Party, McAuliffe is likely to win, and associating Youngkin with Trump is hardly a task.
Youngkin won the nomination — decided at a party convention, rather than a primary — in part by appealing to Trump supporters. “President Trump represents so much of why I’m active,” Youngkin said in a radio interview in May (a line McAuliffe’s campaign has played repeatedly in advertisements).
Youngkin also capitalized on conservative voters’ skepticism about Covid vaccines and masks — views most Virginians don’t share. He is against vaccine mandates for medical staff and teachers, as well as mask mandates in schools. “Like Donald Trump, Glenn Youngkin refuses to take the coronavirus seriously,” the narrator says in an ad from McAuliffe.
Youngkin acknowledges that he is vulnerable on these issues. He rarely talks about Trump publicly anymore and insists that he himself has been vaccinated and encourages others to do the same, even though he sees it as a personal decision. He even ran a misleading, logically tortured ad claiming that McAuliffe is anti-vaccine.
the big picture
If you look at both campaigns together, you’ll see where each of the two parties thinks they are strongest today: crime and divisive cultural debates for Republicans, Trump and Covid for Democrats.
McAuliffe’s greatest advantage remains the democratic inclination of the state. His current lead may be small, but it’s still a lead. In the most recent election in Virginia, polls slightly underestimated Democrats’ performance, notes my colleague Nate Cohn. On the other hand, the race still has a few weeks to go, and the Virginia governor race often favors the candidate who is not a member of the president’s party.
Related: Kentucky’s John Yarmuth will not stand for re-election – a sign that House Democrats fear losing their majority.
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