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Opinion Here’s a little-noticed reason the Virginia race is such a big deal

Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Virginia Beach on Oct. 25. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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It’s widely known that the Virginia gubernatorial race will offer clues on what the 2022 midterm elections might look like. If Democrats win, they might campaign aggressively on vaccine and mask requirements. If Republicans win, they’ll see that demagoguing on critical race theory and feeding former president Donald Trump’s lies about 2020 energize the base with no serious cost among swing voters.

But there’s a less obvious way the Virginia outcome could help shape future campaigns. A Democratic victory might show that another issue has unexpected political potential: Paid leave.

To an underappreciated degree, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s candidacy has put paid leave in the foreground. McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, has pledged to institute statewide paid sick, family and medical leave if elected, vowing to make Virginia the “first Southern state” to do so.

Numerous ads from the McAuliffe campaign have placed paid leave front and center. One ad casts passing a new paid-leave measure as pivotal to ensuring that “everyone is treated with dignity and respect.”

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Another ad says this is central to making sure that “quality, affordable health care” is a “basic human right.” These ads place paid leave on a par with other longtime Democratic priorities that have been go-to issues in campaigns — such as curbing prescription drug prices and expanding access to baseline health care.

Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist in Virginia who also consults for a paid-leave advocacy group, points out that Democrats have not previously highlighted the issue to this degree during gubernatorial campaigns.

“Paid leave was not a central part of the campaign message in the Virginia gubernatorial elections in 2017 or 2013,” Leopold told me, adding that McAuliffe is “blazing a new path” on the issue.

“If McAuliffe succeeds, you’ll see other Democratic candidates for governor run on a paid leave agenda in the midterms in 2022,” Leopold said.

This matters for many reasons. First, as Democrats in Washington negotiate the Build Back Better reconciliation bill, it looks as though the plan’s paid sick, family and medical leave provisions may be downsized dramatically — from 12 weeks to four weeks — to meet centrists’ demands for lower spending.

This means that future action on the state and federal level will be even more necessary. After all, as Jordan Weissmann points out, if the proposal shrinks, it will be badly insufficient: We’ll still be an outlier relative to other wealthy developed nations, and it would not meet the needs of Americans, judging by the unpaid leave they tend to take.

Underscoring the point, right now only nine states have some form of paid family or medical leave, according to Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If the proposal is chopped down, and Republicans take one or both chambers of Congress in the 2022 midterms, states might be the only near-term option for improving the situation.

“If they cut it down, then there will be more need in the states to fill in the gaps,” Romig told me.

With major 2022 gubernatorial contests looming in swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, a McAuliffe victory might embolden Democrats to press the issue forward in those states as well. It might also give Democrats a good issue in the congressional elections, and (if they manage to hold Congress) more impetus to expand the program on the federal level in coming years.

Beyond all this, if paid leave is seen as a potent issue, it may demonstrate that the deep injustices in our economy exposed by the covid-19 pandemic have created new political possibilities. Another McAuliffe ad speaks to exactly this point: It casts paid leave as essential to whether Virginia can “build a post-covid economy,” an idea that obviously could not be given voice in previous elections.

And so, even if the compromises needed to pass the Build Back Better package leave us as an outlier relative to other developed nations on this issue, a McAuliffe victory might underscore that the political will is taking shape to change this. Needless to say, a Democratic loss will likely make progress even harder.

All of which is yet another reminder: Virginia Democrats need to take this race seriously.