Public opinion polls show McAuliffe with a slim and hardly insurmountable lead, amid other troubling indicators for the party brand. Some Democratic leaders believe the Virginia race could have a tectonic impact on the party’s legislative agenda and political standing heading into next year’s midterm elections, suggesting a defeat would be close to devastating.
“It would be a Scott Brown moment, I think,” said retiring Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), referring to the Republican senator’s shocking win in a special Massachusetts election during the final negotiations over the Affordable Care Act. Brown’s 2010 victory was an early indicator of the drubbing Democrats endured in the midterms later that year, even as they eventually managed to enact the ACA.
In a sign of how politics is increasingly nationalized, many of the issues that have dominated the Virginia campaign — coronavirus vaccine mandates, education and crime, among others — mirror those in other battlegrounds across the country. The flurry of high-profile Democrats on the ground in the final weeks further underlines the national dimensions of the race.
McAuliffe’s enlistment of prominent Democrats contrasts with Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin’s quieter approach to national figures in his party, most notably former president Donald Trump. Youngkin embraced Trump as he pursued the GOP nomination but has sought to play down their connection in the general election.
He campaigned in the primary with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and appeared with former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley in the summer, but a Youngkin aide said Wednesday that the campaign has no scheduled public events with Republicans from outside Virginia.
Still, with less fanfare, Youngkin and a GOP ticket mate have recently associated themselves with some veterans of the Trump White House and have touted positions the former president also champions. It’s a sometimes-awkward dynamic that shows the realities of running as a Republican in a state Trump lost soundly. To win, Youngkin must peel off a significant chunk of moderate voters in the Northern Virginia suburbs, where Trump was routed, while also winning conservative rural voters who continue to hold Trump in high regard.
McAuliffe is confronting his own delicate balancing act. As the Democratic cavalry marches into Virginia with early voting underway, one name is conspicuously missing from the luminaries who have announced campaign events: President Biden. Some McAuliffe allies fear Biden’s declining approval ratings are hurting the Democratic nominee, while McAuliffe has in some ways distanced himself from Biden and recently declared the president “unpopular” in Virginia.
But McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, also said this week that Biden would be back to stump for him by Nov. 2, Election Day. White House officials have also left the door open to a visit, though they have been cagey about the president’s plans.
One thing that has not diminished, however, is the belief among Democratic leaders that the fates of McAuliffe, Biden and congressional Democrats are intertwined. That sentiment has intensified in recent weeks as party leaders have struggled to settle intraparty disagreements on Capitol Hill and advance twin proposals to expand the social safety net and make sweeping new investments in roads, bridges and other public works.
McAuliffe has taken an increasingly stern public tone toward Washington Democrats, urging them to stop their infighting and swiftly enact the infrastructure bill, which has already passed the Senate with bipartisan support. His urgency highlights a belief inside and outside the campaign that his chances of victory rest in part on Democrats in Washington showing voters they can deliver tangible results.
Some Democrats in Congress believe that a loss in Virginia, an increasingly blue state where Democrats have won every statewide election since 2012, would signal major problems in the 2022 midterm elections, potentially hurting candidate recruitment, fundraising and party morale. Next year, Democrats will be defending narrow majorities in the Senate and House and seeking to defy a historical trend of the president’s party facing a strong blowback from voters in his first midterm.
A McAuliffe win, in contrast, would not only produce more confidence and enthusiasm for their electoral prospects, but could also give Democrats a much-needed boost in their flagging efforts to pass Biden’s large domestic spending packages, currently held up by disputes in the party over climate change, taxes, health care and other issues.
“Yes, anytime you win an election, particularly an election that is perceived as close, as some people seem to think it is, yes, I think that would help,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who argued that a McAuliffe victory would prompt nervous Democrats to coalesce around the final pieces of their agenda.
In Virginia, McAuliffe’s campaign is trying to use the help of big-name Democratic supporters to excite the party’s core voters, who are no sure bet to turn out in an off-year election. Campaign officials hope that Obama, Abrams and Bottoms will help energize African American voters — a crucial part of the Democratic coalition in the state — to take advantage of early voting on Sundays, a new option in Virginia.
This Sunday, Abrams — who narrowly lost the Georgia governor’s race in 2018 and may run again next year — will attend church and co-host a “Souls to the Polls” event with McAuliffe in Norfolk, which is designed spur Black churchgoers to vote early. She will also campaign with him in Northern Virginia.
Youngkin spokesman Matt Wolking criticized McAuliffe for campaigning with Abrams, who he said “falsely claimed her election was stolen from her.” After her 2018 loss, Abrams acknowledged that Republican Brian Kemp would be governor, but made clear she was not conceding and accused him of voter suppression.
Bottoms, who was a finalist to be Biden’s running mate last year, will lead similar efforts in Virginia this weekend. The following Saturday, Obama will campaign with McAuliffe in Richmond.
This Friday, first lady Jill Biden will campaign with McAuliffe in Henrico County, which includes the suburbs of Richmond. White House officials have had less to say about what the president plans to do on McAuliffe’s behalf.
“I don’t have any updates on travel,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. “I would expect we will have more to convey soon about his plans to support the election of former governor McAuliffe.”
McAuliffe held a rally with Biden in late July in Arlington, where the two men sought aggressively to tether Youngkin to Trump. Biden’s approval ratings were higher then, before a series of late-summer crises had rocked his presidency.
Some of McAuliffe’s allies believe Biden’s falling support has directly affected McAuliffe’s own poll numbers, and McAuliffe recently spoke bluntly about Biden’s political standing.
“The president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we have got to plow through,” McAuliffe said in a virtual conversation with supporters. A September Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 46 percent of Virginia voters approved of Biden as president, while 51 percent disapproved.
Still, McAuliffe said Biden would return to campaign on his behalf. “He’ll be coming back. You bet he will,” he said on Tuesday.
As surrogates barnstorm the state, other powerful Democrats are helping fill McAuliffe’s campaign coffers toward the end of an expensive run. Pelosi is hosting a high-dollar event on Oct. 26 for McAuliffe donors, according to Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and others involved in helping McAuliffe’s campaign.
Pelosi and McAuliffe have known each other for 25 years and came to politics in similar fashion, Pelosi as a dynamic fundraiser out of California for Democrats in the 1980s and McAuliffe as the political money man for the presidential bids of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Youngkin, a political newcomer and former private equity executive, is worth upward of $300 million and is largely self-funding his campaign. Stylistically, he has sought to come across as an ordinary suburban basketball dad, spending big on TV ads in Northern Virginia that portray him in a nonpartisan light.
However, he has tried to walk a fine line in a state where Trump animates the GOP base despite losing Virginia overall by 10 points last year. Youngkin embraced Trump in the Republican primary, refusing to acknowledge that Biden had legitimately won the White House and making “election integrity” the lone issue on his campaign website.
After securing the nomination, however, Youngkin acknowledged Biden’s win as valid and signaled he would focus on kitchen-table issues such as schools, the economy and public safety. But he has never fully pivoted away from Trump and has continued to push culture-war issues popularized by the 45th president, including railing against critical race theory and transgender rights policies in public schools.
Youngkin was recently a guest on a podcast hosted by Sebastian Gorka, a controversial former staffer in the Trump White House, where he was allied with Stephen K. Bannon, a onetime top adviser to Trump who later had a public falling-out with him. On Wednesday, Winsome Sears, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, was slated to speak at an event in the state with Bannon, but left before the program got underway. Trump called into the event, praising Youngkin, who did not attend, as a “a great gentleman.”