The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia went big for Biden but many voters said Democrats have not delivered for them

President Biden at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe in Virginia. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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NORFOLK, Va. — Eutopia Hall didn’t realize she had neglected to sign the bottom of her mail ballot for Virginia governor until the county board of elections returned the document to her, asking her to complete it. But as she sat looking at the paper, she wondered if it was even worth a second trip to the mailbox.

So little had changed since she cast a ballot for Joe Biden in 2020, she said, that “I started to not even press the issue.” Her job and community were still mired in pandemic restrictions. An increase in the child tax credit had brought a few more dollars into her home, but it was eaten up by costlier prices for gas and food and seemingly everything else, and a year after high hopes of change in her family’s situation, things seemed stagnant.

“I don’t think a lot of people have a lot of faith in Biden, like they were expecting at first,” said Hall, a 42-year-old nursing assistant. “I think it’s more of a bigger division than it was before. I thought it was gonna get better once the vaccines came out because there was so many people complaining about covid and wanting a cure, but they came out with a vaccine nobody wants. Nothing has changed and we’re just stuck.”

A year ago, Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points, riding a wave of antipathy toward President Donald Trump to place the commonwealth solidly into the Democratic column. But with the eyes of the political world back on Virginia for its statewide elections on Tuesday, Biden’s sinking popularity has emerged as a key factor dragging down hopes of another party victory and making the state look, once again, more like another battleground than a Democratic stronghold.

A new Washington Post-Schar School poll of likely Virginia voters, which found Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin locked in a tight race for governor, found that 53 percent disapprove of Biden’s job performance, while 46 percent approve.

Regardless of the final outcome Tuesday, the tight race in what many had believed to be a safe blue state underscores the extent to which Americans hold souring views of Biden looms over his party ahead of the key 2022 congressional midterms and the 2024 presidential election.

Virginia gubernatorial race tight as Election Day nears

The Nov. 2 Virginia election has become an unexpectedly close contest. The commonwealth holds elections for governor, lieutenant governor and statewide offices. (Video: Luis Velarde, Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Interviews with nearly two dozen voters in this southeast Virginia region about three hours’ drive from D.C. found a profound sense of frustration that people haven’t seen benefits of Democratic control trickle into their lives or their wallets.

Tia Scott, of Norfolk, said her family has been pinched by rising prices everywhere, even as it gets harder to find a job that makes ends meet.

“The cost of living has been high, the cost of food is going up, gas prices too, and jobs are still laying off people, saying it’s about covid,” said Scott, a 35-year-old customer service representative and mother of three. “I voted for Biden. Really, I was going to vote for anybody but Trump. But it seems like it was all talk. Now I see all the ads were just ads. Just because you say you can do all that stuff on an ad doesn’t mean you can do it.”

Particularly troubling, some said, is that nearly a year after a coronavirus vaccine was approved, mitigation efforts and covid restrictions remain a part of everyday life, the economy doesn’t seem to be working for the most vulnerable, and intraparty infighting has stalled progress on an agenda promised by Biden and the Democrats.

The waning support for Biden has not meant a wholesale defection to the Republicans, and the potential passage of the massive infrastructure and economic measures in the coming days, including programs like universal prekindergarten, could help Democrats regain their footing.

But, for some voters here who have watched the governor’s race play out amid intraparty divisions in Washington, the feeling that Democrats are defined by deadlock has set in. They wonder if the president is soft.

Al Riutort, 80, of Newport News, said he still favors Biden, but has had a hard time pointing out to friends and neighbors the significant things the president has done, other than not being Trump.

“I think he’s trying to play nice,” said Riutort, a retired city planner, who favors McAuliffe, but believes the former Virginia governor will lose on Tuesday in part because of Biden’s insistence on compromise with an infighting Democratic Party in Washington.

“I think it’s hurting him. And I think the Democrats not being able to move forward with some important bills is really hurting him and it’s going to hurt McAuliffe. I was telling my wife, I said, you know, why is it that you know, that two senators, the one from West Virginia and the one from Arizona, how can they have so much leverage over him? Doesn’t he have any power to say ‘look, I need your votes?’ ”

Shortly after Trump got elected, Kayce White, a mother and small business owner in Norfolk, started a group text with close friends and family to have civil conversations about the controversies of the day. They nicknamed it “Political Fight Club” and, over the years, delved into the policies of the Trump administration, the Black Lives Matter movement-, and even the meaning of the word “patriot.”

What the Virginia election can tell us about Congress

But as Biden and Democrats asserted their control of Washington, White said she has found herself more on the defensive.

“You have frustration on our end that some of the things that we’ve been going through with this administration have been messier,” she said. “You know, Afghanistan was a messy withdrawal. Like, there’s a lot of messiness in politics right now.” She’s also had to address people frustrated with the pace of progress and, in some areas, even regression on issues like voting rights and abortion rights.

“We’ve got these two wild card senators who, you know, are trying to be more moderate, and who are blocking a lot of this progressive change that many, many, many Americans want. That’s actually very, very popular with the majority of Americans,” White said. “And that is frustrating to me, you know, I don’t get this idea that progress can be held back by a minority of people. And also them not finding a way forward, that part of it is very frustrating for me.”

The gubernatorial candidates of both parties and a collection of surrogates spent a large swath of the final days of the race around this area, known as Hampton Roads, which both sides see as full of persuadable voters that can tip the scales. Pharrell Williams, who is a singer and producer originally from Virginia Beach, and Vice President Harris headlined a McAuliffe event on Friday. Both McAuliffe and Youngkin also plan to return to the area on the eve of Election Day.

But some Hampton Roads area voters said their perceptions of state politics have been influenced by the actions of national politicians 200 miles away. Pastor Geoffrey Guns, who leads Second Cavalry Baptist Church in Norfolk, said he believes the election will pivot on whether Democrats can convince people like his parishioners that they can deliver. Many Democratic stars have come to his church, including former Virginia governor Tim Kaine and McAuliffe himself. Stacey Abrams campaigned there for McAuliffe last month as well.

But Guns said he remained skeptical that a McAuliffe victory would bring significant change to his community, if the last year of Democratic control has been any sign. “They just can’t seem to come together,” he said. “This branch of the Democratic Party is fighting that branch of the Democratic Party. They’re kind of like a house that’s really divided against itself. And when that happens nothing gets done. Nothing.”

Sean Sullivan and Scott Clement contributed to this report.