The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia’s gubernatorial race tests the fear-of-Trump factor as a political motivator

Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks with reporters at a campaign stop on Oct. 22 at Cafe Sazon in Arlington. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Terry McAuliffe has never been accused of understatement, and as he kicked off a bus tour Friday morning in Arlington, the former governor described the importance to Democrats of his race against Republican Glenn Youngkin this way: “The message we send here in Virginia,” he said, “is a message that’s going to resonate around the country.”

No single election ever answers all the questions of the moment in politics, but fairly or not, the Nov. 2 Virginia contest has taken on outsize importance, particularly to nervous Democrats who are justifiably fearful about losing their congressional majorities in the 2022 midterms. It’s as if the future of the party and of President Biden’s second two years in office are suddenly wrapped up in how well McAuliffe does in his bid to regain the governor’s mansion.

One thing to remember is that McAuliffe’s victory in 2013, while it beat the historical pattern of Virginians electing a governor from the party that does not hold the White House, did not foreshadow the 2014 midterms, which were won by the Republicans. No matter what happens in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, Democrats will be on the defensive in 2022. The question is: by how much?

Still, the McAuliffe-Youngkin race can begin to answer some of the questions about the current state of the electorate and forces that will shape the races next year. That begins with the role of former president Donald Trump as a motivator, for Republicans but especially for Democrats, and how that affects who votes and who doesn’t.

McAuliffe is doing everything he can to make the race about Trump. He and his team worry that Republicans are more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats. They fear that the Virginia voters who delivered big victories for the Democrats in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential race seem to see Trump as less of a threat today than when he was in office and that they may be less motivated to turn out in the gubernatorial race.

Virginia held elections in each of the four years Trump was in office. Each time, turnout hit a record — the highest ever in a governor’s race in 2017, the highest in a midterm in 2018, the highest in an off-year election in 2019 and the highest in a presidential election in 2020. In each of those years, Democrats scored notable victories, adding to the evidence that Virginia was increasingly becoming a Democratic state.

McAuliffe knows there is a problem without Trump ever-present in people’s minds. “There was a burning intensity the last four years for people to vote,” he said in a telephone interview on Friday. “It was exhausting for four years. It was Trump, Trump, Trump. People lived with it constantly. It infuriated and disgusted so many people. It’s not there in the same intensity.”

Will abortion decide the outcome in Virginia?

McAuliffe has highlighted Youngkin’s statements welcoming Trump’s endorsement, his opposition to abortion, his opposition to vaccine or mask mandates and his support for a focus on “election integrity,” despite the absence of any evidence of irregularities, as a way to tie him to Trump more closely. The more successful McAuliffe is in making the race as much about Trump as about Youngkin, the more confident he is of victory.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is tightening as Election Day nears. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

That strategy worked in the recent California recall, when Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom woke up a sleepy Democratic electorate by turning Larry Elder, the leading Republican candidate, into a Trump acolyte. But California is a far bluer state than Virginia, and Elder, a radio talk show host with a long history of provocative, conservative statements, was an easier target than Youngkin, a business executive and political newcomer without a long public record.

If McAuliffe is hoping to nationalize the race, Youngkin is trying to keep the focus on Virginia. He is attempting to show that there is a way to navigate a path that many Republican candidates will confront in their elections, one that seeks to maintain the loyalty of Trump’s most fervent supporters while trying to appeal as well to more traditional Republicans and independents.

It is a potentially awkward balancing act, embracing Trump at times and keeping his distance at others. Youngkin believes he has found the formula. “It’s less navigating and more hugging everybody,” he said on Saturday morning in Great Falls as he began a 10-day bus tour. He added, “We’ve got Forever Trumpers, Never Trumpers and single-issue voters and folks who were Libertarians and tea party folks and independents.”

Are Black voters in Virginia energized or tired?

McAuliffe predicted that Virginia could be headed toward another record turnout. But that’s not the key to his hopes for another term in office. He needs the right composition of the electorate — the kinds of percentages of Black voters, younger voters and suburban voters, especially suburban women — that will conform to the patterns of the past few elections. Given Virginia’s political shift toward the Democrats since former president Barack Obama won the state in 2008, if McAuliffe were to lose the race or even win narrowly, Democratic worries about 2022 would increase dramatically.

McAuliffe is relying on the biggest names in the Democratic Party to generate the kind of enthusiasm that he’ll need to win. They include President Biden, who is scheduled to campaign in the state on Tuesday, Obama, Vice President Harris, first lady Jill Biden and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams. McAuliffe scoffs at suggestions that he needs all this surrogate attention to win. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, he says, and typical of what he has done in the past.

Former president Barack Obama scoffed at opposition to gay marriage at an Oct. 23 rally for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. (Video: The Washington Post)

Youngkin thinks there’s another reason. “He’s losing,” he said. “And so he’s doing everything he can to bail the water out of a sinking boat. . . . The sun is setting on Terry McAuliffe’s political career and he knows it, and everybody around him knows it. Watch what he’s doing. He’s bringing everybody in the world in here to try to campaign with him and take the spotlight off of Glenn Youngkin versus Terry McAuliffe.”

Nearly as important as the Trump factor is the Biden factor, which has played a role in keeping the Virginia race as close as it appears to be and will be even more important in determining how well or badly Democrats do next year. Biden’s approval ratings began to slide after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; the Virginia race tightened at the same time. The absence of action on Biden’s major initiatives has also increased Democratic frustrations. No election is insulated from national trends, and Virginia is this year’s example.

The Virginia race also provides insights into some of the issues that will be in play next year, particularly education and the economy.

McAuliffe gave Youngkin an opening to make education a prime issue when he said in a recent debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin pounced and has used what McAuliffe said to piggyback on what has become a growing and divisive cultural debate, one that has generated anger and protests at local school board meetings.

The debate touches on everything from curriculum issues — the teaching of history and racial history — to covid-related shutdowns and divisions over mask and vaccine mandates. Youngkin’s standard speech includes a vow to prevent the teaching of critical race theory in Virginia schools, though it is not part of the state’s school curriculum.

The economy also figures to be an issue in Virginia and beyond. Democrats believe that with the boost from Biden’s rescue package and, if approved, his infrastructure and social spending packages, an economic rebound will accrue to their benefit next year. Republicans have seized on rising gasoline and other prices to highlight fears of inflation.

The final days of the campaign are now likely to hinge on how successful McAuliffe is in persuading Democrats that they do not have the luxury of staying on the sidelines, that Youngkin is not cut from the same mold as, say, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) or others who have clearly separated themselves from Trump. With an eye to 2022, Democrats around the country will be watching closely to see the result.