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Opinion Here’s who has the edge in the Virginia governor race

(Tom Toles/The Washington Post)

You didn’t think you could get through a big, contested, nationally scrutinized election without hearing from the Post Pundit Power Ranking, did you?

The crew is back for one night only (until the next night only) to weigh in on the Virginia gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. It’s the most hotly watched contest since President Biden assumed office, and it could be the key to understanding what happens in next year’s nationwide congressional elections.

Our rankers were asked to rate the race as “Solid McAuliffe edge,” “Slight McAuliffe edge,” “Neck and neck,” “Slight Youngkin edge” or “Solid Youngkin edge.” But spoiler alert: There’s nothing “solid” about this election at all. Read on to see just how close the rankers think this thing’s going to be. — Drew Goins

Virginia governor’s race a toss-up as Election Day nears, Post-Schar School poll finds

Neck and neck

On paper, this should be a slight edge for McAuliffe. Yes, the polls have tightened, but it’s still been weeks since a survey showed Youngkin actually leading. But the tradition of off-year elections and midterms going against the party in the White House is as true in Virginia as anywhere. Thanks to conservative Democrats’ foot-dragging and contradictory demands, the infrastructure and social spending packages have been thoroughly gutted and may not even pass in time, further dampening the party’s base. And in McAuliffe, Democrats have a candidate who’s always been more popular with the donor class than with the public — even before he put both feet in his mouth. — James Downie

The Democrats’ biggest concern is the “enthusiasm gap” that shows up in polling and focus groups. This will be a big test of how motivated their key constituencies are, and an early indicator of what they face in next year’s midterms. — Karen Tumulty

The polls are close. Democrats seem terrified. Republicans seem ecstatic. And neither candidate has a clear, overwhelming advantage on the other indicators. If Youngkin prevails — or if McAuliffe wins by a narrow margin — Democrats should be worried. They barely won the House in 2020, and even a little bit of erosion puts them in serious danger of losing the chamber in 2022. — David Byler

McAuliffe isn’t a snazzy-enough candidate to inspire more enthusiasm than there already is among Dems, or about President Biden, and the enthusiasm that already exists is … not much. — Molly Roberts

Alas, Youngkin has successfully gotten the GOP base into a lather by demagoguing about critical race theory and feeding into former president Donald Trump’s lies about 2020 while pretending not to. It remains unclear whether Democratic voters will be proportionately energized by McAuliffe’s vow to keep up the fight against covid-19, even as Youngkin threatens to reverse that progress. Of course, now that Youngkin has made a big issue out of parents upset by Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” being taught in schools — the horror! — maybe that will finally awaken those Democratic voters to what a menace he poses. — Greg Sargent

Youngkin has expertly crafted himself as a man of the reasonable center-right, while McAuliffe is being dragged down by his own gaffes and national Democratic weakness. Biden won Virginia by 10 points, and polls show the race tied; a New Jersey governor poll shows a similar 10-point movement to the GOP (Biden won by 16 points, and Phil Murphy is up by 6). Call it a jump ball with a few days to go. — Henry Olsen

Slight McAuliffe edge

Neither of these candidates is spectacular, charismatic, super-charming or super-exciting. So I think of this as kind of a generic R-versus-D matchup. Usually, the party out of the White House does better in congressional and state races. So that helps Youngkin. But I think Virginia is more blue than purple now. And McAuliffe has had plenty of time to bring in Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams and others to pump up the Democratic base. So McAuliffe is the favorite … but Youngkin could still win. — Perry Bacon Jr.

Historically speaking, the race should be Youngkin’s to lose. Since 1977, the pattern — with one exception — has been that the party that wins the White House always loses the Virginia governor’s mansion the following year. The exception was none other than Terry McAuliffe, when he was elected governor in 2013, a year after Obama’s reelection. So McAuliffe is trying to beat the odds a second time. Virginia is a pretty blue state at this point, but not of a deep-enough shade that anyone should expect McAuliffe to win by double digits, as Biden did last year. Biden’s biggest advantage was that he was running against Trump. Youngkin’s biggest weakness, and the reason I think he will fall short, is that he was endorsed by Trump — and cannot afford to disown him. On balance, in Virginia, I think that motivates the Democratic base more than the Republican. — Eugene Robinson

Slight Youngkin edge

Intensity wins off-year elections, and Republicans seem to have more of it right now. McAuliffe ought to be considered the front-runner, and he’ll win if he can prod enough Democrats to vote in what has become a blue state; no GOP candidate has won statewide since 2009. But Youngkin isn’t Trump. The first-time candidate comes across as a down-to-earth suburban dad, and he’s forged a coalition of Forever Trumpers and Never Trumpers by avoiding too much substance and playing footsie with the “big lie”. Democrats acknowledge grass-roots fatigue post-Trump, especially since they have unified control of Richmond. And McAuliffe has been campaigning like someone who believes he’s losing. I wouldn’t bet much money on the former governor bucking historical patterns again. — James Hohmann

Final score: The itty-bittiest, slightest McAuliffe edge

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments. We’ll see you for the next bellwether vote that commands a nation’s gaze — anybody up for some school board smackdowns? Until then, this is the Post Pundit Power Ranking, at your service.