RICHMOND — Republican Glenn Youngkin likes to tell supporters that a victory for him in the Virginia governor's race would "send a shock wave" across the country. It would repudiate Democratic rule not only in Richmond, he says, but in Washington as well.
“Terry McAuliffe must be worried about his terrible poll numbers if he’s already calling in political favors this early in the campaign,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said.
“That’s news to me,” McAuliffe said in an interview when told of the comment. “I assume he’ll be here a bunch of times — that’s my goal. This is his first political event since he’s been president, I think that’s a big honor for us.”
Either way, Biden’s visit underscores the high stakes of this year’s elections in Virginia, which serve as both a referendum on Biden’s first year in office and a harbinger of next year’s congressional contests nationwide.
“A win in Virginia in ’21, a state that we haven’t won in over a decade, would be a huge boost for Republicans nationally going into the midterms,” said Phil Cox, a political strategist and former head of the Republican Governors Association.
That means Youngkin, too, is calling in the celebrity firepower, despite criticizing McAuliffe for it. He traveled around Virginia earlier this year with Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and last week with Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations. He often touts his senior economic adviser, Stephen Moore, who advised President Donald Trump.
But the nationalization of the race poses a dilemma for Youngkin, because it raises the question of whether he would campaign alongside Trump — who remains popular with the GOP base but strongly disliked in the vote-rich urban and suburban parts of Virginia that are crucial to winning statewide.
Youngkin’s campaign declined to say whether he plans to invite Trump to the state, noting only that nothing is currently scheduled.
Campaigning with Trump in Virginia “is not helpful, because this is a state that Donald Trump lost by five points the first time and 10 points the second,” said Tucker Martin, a former Republican consultant who has worked with many of the party’s recent gubernatorial nominees, though not Youngkin.
But Trump himself, who endorsed Youngkin immediately after the GOP nominating convention in May, has cautioned against being too aloof.
“Four years ago, a man named Ed Gillespie ran for Governor of Virginia without ‘embracing’ MAGA, or the America First movement,” Trump said in a statement through his Save America PAC earlier this month. “He tried to skirt the issue by wanting my endorsement, yet walking on both sides of the fence. The Trump base is very large in Virginia, they understood his game, and they didn’t come out for Gillespie, nor did I do anything to help or hurt. He got creamed!”
State Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson said last week after a Youngkin rally in Richmond that “if the former president came here, we would of course welcome the former leader of the Republican Party. . . . We’ll see if he does. Let’s just say one thing: Mr. Trump has a mind of his own. And where that’s going to take him, a visit to Virginia or not, who knows.”
McAuliffe says he would love to see Youngkin bring Trump to Virginia. “Yeah, I’ll pay for the fuel to get him here,” he said.
That’s because Trump has made Republicans “toxic in Virginia,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Richmond. Youngkin has praised the former president, but since winning the GOP nomination has softened his tone on some subjects, including an initial reluctance to acknowledge that Biden was legitimately elected.
Trump’s statement about Gillespie earlier this month amounted to “a warning signal that if you begin to distance yourself from me, I’ll have some commentary about that,” Holsworth said.
McAuliffe has spent much of the campaign tying Youngkin to Trump — calling him “Trumpkin,” for instance, in public appearances — and doesn’t mind comparing his own race to the 2020 presidential election.
Like Biden, McAuliffe is a tried-and-true veteran politician, having served as Virginia’s governor from 2014 to 2018. Both men defeated a diverse slate of competitors to win their party’s nomination, and were seen as the electable alternative to other candidates who were more militantly liberal.
McAuliffe touts his 40-year friendship with Biden as a plus for Virginia, implying that the connection could help the state get things done. He noted that he put aside his own presidential ambitions in deference to Biden.
“I was thinking of running and went over and spent three hours with Joe, and you know we realized we could split the vote,” McAuliffe said. “So I supported the vice president in his race.”
McAuliffe’s endorsement early last year helped deliver Virginia for Biden during the primary, cementing the former vice president’s status as the front-runner for the nomination.
Now McAuliffe anticipates some support in return. He said he has also talked with Vice President Harris and hopes she’ll join him on the trail as well.
Youngkin’s campaign declined to make the candidate available for an interview and offered only the brief statement on Biden’s scheduled appearance with McAuliffe. “We expect he’ll bring his mentors Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton here soon too, just like he did the first two times he ran for governor,” Porter said via email.
McAuliffe said he had no sense yet whether the Clintons would campaign for him — a prospect that might anger Republicans but probably not Democrats, who chose Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
Tying himself so closely to Biden could pose a risk for McAuliffe, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
“If Biden’s approval numbers head south he may not be much of an asset to McAuliffe,” Farnsworth said. A resurgence of the coronavirus, high inflation, rising crime rates — all could weaken Biden’s standing by fall, he said.
But that’s a risk McAuliffe has to take, said Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist whose clients include current Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Like all Virginia governors, Northam is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term.
“Democrats control the White House, Democrats control the levers of government in Virginia and you’ve got to run on that. You’ve got to say things are good because of Democratic leadership, and he’s got a compelling case to make,” Bergman said.
That’s what McAuliffe and Biden intend to do on Friday evening in Arlington, with an outdoor rally featuring Northam and a host of other state Democrats.
Republicans say they’re happy to put the focus on Biden.
“I think the president’s honeymoon is largely over and the political environment is improving for Republicans across the board,” said Cox, the GOP strategist.
He handled the campaign of Virginia’s last Republican governor: Bob McDonnell, who won in 2009. Cox believes Youngkin’s status as a former business executive with deep pockets and no political background makes him the ideal candidate at a time when many voters are tired of division and unrest.
“McAuliffe is the ultimate insider who represents the past,” Cox said.
Moore — the economic adviser, to whom Youngkin’s campaign reported paying $35,000 last month — said Youngkin’s candidacy has energized Republicans.
“This race really has, in my opinion and for other conservatives around the country, a very, very large national significance,” Moore said, adding that a victory would “slow down” Democrats in Congress.
“If Republicans win the governorship in a state that’s gone pretty blue lately, that’s a good indication that conservatives are activated,” he said.