2021-10-13 14:33:50 Virginia’s Close Race
Virginia’s Close Race
Virginia has turned blue, with a Democrat winning every top-of-the-ticket race — president, senator, or governor — in the last decade. However, elections there are frequently close, especially when the national political climate favors Republicans.
Right now, the political climate appears to be favorable to Republicans. Rather than passing broadly popular policies proposed by President Biden, Congressional Democrats are squabbling over legislative process. Biden has also demonstrated a lack of mastery over a number of other issues, including Afghanistan, the economy, and the pandemic. His approval rating has dropped to around 45%.
In light of this, it’s no surprise that the Virginia governor’s race — one of two this November, along with New Jersey’s — is so close. In the polls, Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who previously held the position, is only a few points ahead of Glenn Youngkin, a Republican and former business executive. There are enough undecided voters that either candidate could win.
Virginia obviously cares about the race. It will have an impact on state policy regarding Covid-19, taxes, education, renewable energy, and other issues. The campaign also previews some of the key themes that Democrats and Republicans are likely to emphasize in next year’s midterm elections.
Today, I’d like to take a look at the two candidates’ pitches to voters. They are emphasizing not only different positions, but also different issues, indicating that Youngkin and McAuliffe agree on which issues benefit which political party.
Youngkin comes from a country club Republican background, having worked as a top executive at the Carlyle Group, an investment firm, and now self-funding his campaign with his wealth. With a Trump-friendly campaign that repeated false claims about voter fraud, he won the Republican nomination. Since then, Youngkin has attempted to appeal to Virginia’s swing voters by portraying himself as a suburban father and political outsider whose business experience will benefit the state’s economy.
That is his upbeat message. Much of his advertising has been negative, attempting to link McAuliffe to what Youngkin refers to as “the radical left.”
It’s a strategy that helped Republican congressional candidates win seats in 2020. Youngkin, like them, is focusing on slogans and positions held by many progressive activists, such as Defund the Police or Abolish ICE. McAuliffe, like most elected Democrats, does not hold some of these positions. However, in an era when politics has become nationalized, some voters view each election as a referendum on an entire political party — and they judge the Democratic Party in part on its high-profile, progressive wing.
(According to The New York Times’ Nick Corasaniti, many ads in the Virginia race are focused on national issues rather than local ones.)
Uniformed sheriffs criticize McAuliffe for accepting endorsements from “extreme Democrats” in one Youngkin ad, while praising Youngkin’s crime-fighting plan. Another ad features a radio clip in which McAuliffe responds to a question about abortion restrictions by saying he will be a “brick wall” for abortion rights. Youngkin described the situation at the US-Mexico border as “absolute chaos” during a debate.
His most recent focus has been on a statement McAuliffe made during one of their debates about school policy toward gender and sexually explicit books: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” (My colleague Lisa Lerer investigates the role of schools in the campaign in greater depth.)
Youngkin is essentially running against “wokeism,” knowing that some progressive Democrats support positions that most Americans do not, such as cuts to police budgets, a relatively open immigration policy, and virtually no abortion restrictions.
Some progressives are quick to point out that some of these appeals are essentially white-identity politics, which is correct. However, the majority of the issues are about more than just race. And accusing American politicians — or voters — of racism is rarely a winning campaign strategy.
… as well as McAuliffe’s strategy
McAuliffe’s positive message has centered on his performance as governor during his previous term (before he had to step aside because Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms). He is pleased with the economy’s performance, the low crime rate, and his willingness to collaborate with Republicans. McAuliffe’s negative message has attempted to define Youngkin in terms of two issues: Trump and Covid.
Trump lost Virginia by ten points to Biden, faring particularly poorly in Northern Virginia suburbs that voted Republican a generation ago. If the governor’s race is a referendum on the national Republican Party, McAuliffe will almost certainly win, and linking Youngkin to Trump isn’t much of a stretch.
Youngkin won the nomination, which was determined at a party convention rather than a primary, in part by appealing to Trump supporters. “President Trump represents so much of why I’m running,” Youngkin said in a May radio interview (a line McAuliffe’s campaign has repeated in advertisements).
Youngkin has also exploited conservative voters’ skepticism about Covid vaccines and masks, which is shared by the majority of Virginians. He is opposed to vaccine mandates for medical workers and teachers, as well as school mask mandates. “Like Donald Trump, Glenn Youngkin refuses to take coronavirus seriously,” a McAuliffe ad’s narrator says.
Youngkin is aware that he is vulnerable on these issues. He rarely speaks publicly about Trump anymore, and he emphasizes that he has been vaccinated and encourages others to do the same, even though he sees it as a personal choice. He’s even run a deceptive, logically tortured ad claiming McAuliffe is anti-vaccine.
The overall picture
When you look at both campaigns, you can see where each party believes they are strongest today: crime and divisive cultural debates for Republicans, Trump and Covid for Democrats.
McAuliffe’s biggest advantage continues to be the state’s Democratic lean. His current lead is small, but it is a lead nonetheless. According to my colleague Nate Cohn, polls in recent Virginia elections have slightly understated Democrats’ performance. However, the race is still a few weeks away, and Virginia’s governor race frequently favors a candidate who is not a member of the president’s party.