When Democrats won the 2017 gubernatorial contest in Virginia by a whopping 9 points, it was widely seen as a harbinger of worse to come for Republicans in the Donald Trump era. And indeed, the suburban revolt that signaled against Trump continued, helping drive the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018 and Trump’s 2020 defeat.

Now, with President Biden in the White House, the Virginia gubernatorial election of 2021 sets up a kind of reverse version of the same test. This time, a key question is: How meaningful and lasting is that suburban shift to Democrats?

The Republican Party’s choice of businessman Glenn Youngkin as the GOP nominee for this race sharpens the stakes on this question.

That’s because Youngkin’s GOP rivals for the nomination were more besotted with Trump than he was. While Youngkin’s campaign was very faithful to Trump, he will be harder to caricature in the general election as a pure Trump clone.

That means there may be a real battle in the Virginia suburbs, one that will test Democrats’ hold on the region, and on the suburbs more generally, at a time of ascendant progressivism.

Youngkin, who can self-fund with his private equity fortune, will campaign as an “outsider with proven business experience.” He’ll face the winner of the Democratic primary, where former governor Terry McAuliffe holds a large lead.

It’s been widely noted that a big question is whether Youngkin can win in Virginia given Trump’s deep unpopularity in the state, where Trump lost to Biden by 10 points. But a better question is whether he can win despite holding unpopular positions held both by Trump and by the Republican Party more broadly.

As Trip Gabriel reports, Youngkin has denounced Virginia’s expansion of Medicaid as a “very sad thing” and will campaign on the idea that Democratic policies have been “crushing” to Virginia’s business environment.

That puts him in sync with the GOP’s hostility to the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of health coverage to millions and more generally with its economic agenda. Youngkin also boasts of his anti-choice bona fides.

Meanwhile, as Cameron Joseph reports, Youngkin has repeatedly refused to say Biden legitimately won the presidency, and has endorsed a raft of limits on voting, similar to GOP voter suppression efforts everywhere. In short, he’s largely on board with the GOP’s radicalization against democracy, though he’s finessed this by avoiding embracing the craziest 2020 conspiracy theories.

The result, as Dave Wasserman points out, is that as the least overtly Trumpy Republican candidate, Youngkin is plausibly positioned to reduce the enormous margins that Democrats ran up in suburban areas like northern Virginia in 2017 and 2020.

And if Youngkin can bring those margins down a bit, he might be able to win statewide given the increasing GOP tilt in rural areas. As Wasserman says, this will shed light on whether the suburban “anti-Trump shift is automatically a durable, pro-Democratic shift.”

Here’s why this makes for such an interesting test.

One big unknown is whether the GOP has damaged itself in the suburbs in a way that goes well beyond Trump. Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist with experience on Virginia races, points out that Youngkin may have a “GOP brand problem” in the Virginia suburbs, not just a Trump problem.

“It’s not just that he’s pledged his loyalty to Trump,” Leopold told me. “He’s also spent a campaign attacking the Medicaid expansion, reproductive rights and voting rights.”

Another big unknown is whether Democrats’ success in winning suburban, educated and relatively affluent white voters during the Trump era will endure amid an era of progressive policy advances.

Biden has already signed a huge covid-19 rescue package. By next fall, he may have signed huge new public expenditures on infrastructure, paid family and medical leave, expanded college access, green energy, and much more.

Meanwhile, on the state level in Virginia, Democrats have passed an extraordinary array of progressive initiatives, including expanded Medicaid, new gun control laws, LGBT protections, legalized marijuana, and doing away with GOP voting restrictions.

So this race may help begin to answer whether all this progressivism will cause affluent and suburban whites to revert to more GOP-sympathetic pre-Trump tendencies — and vote for an ostensibly “pro-business” Republican, without his Trumpist anti-democracy leanings being disqualifying.

Alternatively, it may show that those voters’ pro-Democratic shift might endure even amid an era of ambitious progressive advances.

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