Both sides agree the race is now a toss-up.
Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin ripped Biden during the final debate in Alexandria on Tuesday for “an abject failure of leadership” in Afghanistan and the “absolute chaos” at the southern border. McAuliffe didn’t come to the president’s defense on either issue. Instead, he said a $3.5 trillion price tag for the Democratic reconciliation package is “too high.”
Both Youngkin and McAuliffe support the bipartisan infrastructure package being blocked by House progressives, but McAuliffe stands to suffer first if Democratic leaders cannot break the logjam to get it through. McAuliffe also expressed support for protecting qualified immunity for police officers and played down the prospects he’d ever sign a bill that would end Virginia’s status as a right-to-work state — two issues that put him at odds with his left.
Democrats say they always knew this race would tighten, but several strategists privately express concern about growing evidence of an enthusiasm gap and wonder if the race could be a harbinger of a disastrous midterm cycle. Virginia Republicans who didn’t think Youngkin could pull off an upset a few months ago feel increasingly hopeful that they’ll win their first statewide race in 12 years.
A Fox News poll released Thursday showed McAuliffe up four points among registered voters, but Youngkin supporters express more interest in the race. Biden’s job approval rating is 50 percent, but that support is soft: While 24 percent strongly approve, 37 percent strongly disapprove of the president.
A Roanoke College poll published Wednesday showed McAuliffe up seven points among likely voters, but 43 percent of Republicans said they were extremely enthusiastic about voting compared with 35 percent of Democrats. Six in 10 voters said the country is on the wrong track, and 73 percent rate Biden’s handling of Afghanistan as fair or poor.
A Post-Schar School poll conducted earlier in September showed independents, who backed Biden in Virginia last November by 19 points in exit polls, supported Youngkin by a margin of 52 percent to 44 percent among those likely to vote. McAuliffe led by two points among those who said they’re absolutely certain to vote but had an 18-point advantage among voters who say they’ll “probably” vote or are “50-50” on whether to bother.
McAuliffe has been trying to get those potential voters off the fence by linking his opponent to former president Donald Trump. But this strategy hasn’t worked, at least so far. Youngkin comes across as an affable suburban dad who, unlike Trump, you’d trust to look after your daughter for the weekend. He’s temperamentally closer to Mitt Romney than Trump. Putting up a Youngkin yard sign in the affluent suburbs outside D.C. isn’t going to heighten neighborhood tensions the way a Trump sign would have last year.
Youngkin needs Trump supporters to turn out for him in droves, but he also cannot win without some suburban women who historically voted Republican but loathe the ex-president.
Youngkin threaded the needle during Tuesday’s debate by saying he’ll support Trump if he’s the GOP nominee in 2024, while mocking McAuliffe for how many times he invokes the former president. Trump grumbles about this balancing act, warning during a radio interview that Youngkin might lose if he does not “embrace the MAGA movement.” One factor likely keeping Trump in line is that at least a dozen Youngkin staffers previously worked for him.
The new Fox News poll shows Trump is viewed favorably by 41 percent and unfavorably by 57 percent of Virginia voters, essentially unchanged from the eve of the last governor’s race. In 2017, many Virginia Democrats would have crawled over glass to vote against anyone with an “R” next to their name because they detested Trump so much.
Next month’s election will show whether Trump out of power remains a more galvanizing force than Biden in power. White House press secretary Jen Psaki argues that the Virginia race should not be covered as a referendum on Biden’s agenda. “Races are always a little bit more complicated than that,” she said on Wednesday.
It’s hard to imagine Psaki saying this if Democrats felt more confident of victory.