The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the Virginia governor’s race can tell us about Democrats’ hope to keep control of Congress

Republicans have the enthusiasm in this Democratic-leaning state. (Eric Lee/For the Washington Post)

Next week, Democrats could lose or come close to losing a governor’s race in a state that voted for President Biden by 10 points. So what does that mean for Democrats’ chances to keep control of Congress next year?

The Virginia governor’s race is often seen as an indicator of both parties’ health. It’s sandwiched between the presidential race a year earlier and midterm elections a year later.

Virginia has also become friendlier territory for Democrats lately. They haven’t lost a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, and now the governor’s race is neck-and-neck between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. A new Washington Post-Schar School poll finds McAuliffe at 49 percent and Youngkin at 48 percent.

While we should be wary of over-interpreting one election, there are a few key questions about the midterms that the Virginia governor’s race can shed light on.

Can a Republican candidate court both “the-election-was-stolen” voters and independents?

That’s explicitly what Youngkin is trying to do, and if he’s successful, he could be a model for the rest of the Republican Party to follow. But it requires some very tricky maneuvering.

During the primary, Youngkin refused to say that Biden legitimately won the presidential election. And he elevated vague calls for “election integrity,” which plays into former president Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.

But after the primary, Youngkin quietly acknowledged that Biden won, and then spent millions on ads trying to introduce himself to a broader swath of voters as a basketball-coaching dad and businessman, reports The Post’s Laura Vozzella.

Voters in suburban districts across the country will decide the majority of the House and Senate. And Republican candidates there are watching Youngkin walk out onto this tightrope first and seeing if it’s possible not to fall.

“You have to motivate the Trump base when he’s not on the ballot, but not alienate independents and disaffected Republicans that don’t like Trump,” said Jessica Taylor, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “And it’s very hard to do.”

Is Trump a motivating factor for both parties?

In 2017, Democrats in Virginia swept almost all competitive state House races — surprising even themselves. It was one of the biggest signs of anti-Trump enthusiasm that helped Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives.

In 2021, many signs in Virginia point to Republican enthusiasm to vote. Republican candidates want to know: How much of that is driven by a loyalty to Trump, who had a way of bringing out voters that in some cases Republicans didn’t even know were on their team?

Democrats are also trying to act as though Trump is on the ballot again. McAuliffe derides Youngkin as “Trump in khakis,” Taylor notes. “He is closing very much on a Trump message,” she said. “But when he is not in the Oval Office, does he have that same fear factor?”

Potentially unhelpful to Youngkin is how much Trump is trying to insert himself into this race, especially in the final days. He hinted he’d hold a rally in the state. (Youngkin has refused to say whether he would want to campaign with Trump.)

And one of Trump’s most controversial allies, Stephen K. Bannon, held a rally in Richmond where the attendants said the Pledge of Allegiance to a flag they claimed had been at the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. Youngkin had to distance himself from that moment, calling it “weird and wrong.”

How do Republicans campaign against Biden?

Republicans feel like they have no shortage of issues to choose from — Afghanistan, the economy, social spending bills and vaccine mandates that they say demonstrate the heavy hand of government.

Biden is unpopular right now, even in Virginia, which overwhelmingly supported him last year.

Youngkin has specifically funneled anti-Biden sentiment into the culture war debates about schools. His ad that got the most attention during the campaign was one accusing McAuliffe — when McAuliffe was last governor — of prohibiting parental say in school teachings. It was missing some important context, The Post’s Fact Checker said, but it went viral.

Also, reports Vozzella, he has tapped into White grievance by talking a lot about “critical race theory,” a dominating — and energizing — culture war topic on the far right.

How do Democrats campaign against Republicans in the post-Trump era?

Democrats have treated Youngkin as if he were running on a pro-Trump platform. “You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular ol’ hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” former president Barack Obama said.

Tying Republicans to Trump helped Democrats win back the Senate, House and White House. But what happens if that doesn’t work in Virginia just a year after he’s out of office?

“They have thrown the kitchen sink at Youngkin,” Taylor said. “They’ve used everything that they have tried against Republican candidates for the past four, five years now. If that doesn’t work, where do they go from here?”