Virginia has become a Blue State, with a Democrat having won every race to the top – for president, senator, or governor – in the past decade. But elections there are often close, especially when the national political climate is favorable to Republicans.
Right now, the political climate again looks promising for Republicans. Congressional Democrats are fighting over the legislative process rather than adopting the policies proposed by President Biden. Biden has also looked less than masterfully on several other issues, including Afghanistan, the economy, and the pandemic. His approval rating has dropped about 45 percent.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense that the Virginia governor’s race – one of two in November, along with New Jersey’s – is so close. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who previously held the post, is ahead of Glenn Youngkin, a Republican and former business executive, by just a few points in the polls. Enough voters seem undecided whether one or the other could win.
The race obviously counts for Virginia. It will influence state policy on Covid-19, taxes, education, renewable energy and more. The campaign also offers insight into some of the main themes Democrats and Republicans are likely to focus on in next year’s midterm election.
Today I want to look at the arguments the two candidates are making to voters. They emphasize not only different positions, but also different issues – a sign that Youngkin and McAuliffe broadly agree on which issues benefit which political party.
Youngkin’s strategy …
Youngkin has a Republican background in a country club, having been a senior executive at The Carlyle Group, an investment firm, and now self-financing his campaign with his wealth. He won the Republican nomination with a pro-Trump campaign echoing false allegations of voter fraud. Since then, Youngkin has attempted to woo swing voters in Virginia, portraying himself as a suburban dad and political underdog whose business savvy will help the economy.
This is his positive message. Much of his advertising has focused on a negative message, trying to tie McAuliffe to what Youngkin calls “the radical left.”
It’s a strategy that has helped Republican congressional candidates win some seats in 2020. Like them, Youngkin focuses on the slogans and positions held by many progressive activists, like Defund the Police or Abolish ICE. McAuliffe does not hold some of these positions, nor do most of the elected officials. Democrats. But in a time when politics has become nationalized, some voters treat every election like a referendum on an entire political party – and they judge the Democratic Party partly on the basis of its top-level progressive wing.
(The Times’ Nick Corasaniti notes that many advertisements in the Virginia race focus on national issues rather than local.)
In a Youngkin ad, uniformed sheriffs criticize McAuliffe for accepting the endorsement of “extreme Democrats” and praise Youngkin’s plan to reduce crime. Another ad airs a radio clip in which McAuliffe answers a question about whether he supports abortion restrictions by saying he will be “a brick wall” for abortion rights. During a debate, Youngkin called the situation on the US-Mexico border “absolute chaos.”
Most recently he focused on a statement McAuliffe made during one of their debates, as part of a discussion of school policy regarding gender and sexually explicit books: “I don’t think parents should. tell schools what they should be teaching. (My colleague Lisa Lerer takes a more in-depth look at the role of schools in the countryside.)
Youngkin is basically trying to fight “awakening, knowing that some progressive democrats favor positions that most Americans don’t – including cuts in police budgets, a relatively open immigration policy and virtually no restrictions on abortion.
Progressives are quick to say that some of these calls are essentially white identity politics, and it’s true. But most of the issues aren’t just about race. And accusing American politicians – or voters – of racism is generally not an effective campaign strategy.
… and McAuliffe’s strategy
McAuliffe’s positive message focused on his record during his previous tenure as governor (before he had to step down as Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms). He praises the economy’s performance, the low crime rate and his willingness to work with Republicans. McAuliffe’s negative post attempted to define Youngkin by two issues: Trump and Covid.
Trump lost Virginia to Biden by 10 points, faring particularly poorly in the northern Virginia suburb that voted Republican a generation ago. If the governor’s race is a referendum on the national Republican Party, McAuliffe is likely to win, and linking Youngkin to Trump is hardly an overstatement.
Youngkin won the nomination – decided at a party convention, rather than a primary – in part by appealing to Trump supporters. “President Trump is a big part of why I’m running,” Youngkin said in a radio interview in May (a line the McAuliffe campaign ran in commercials on several occasions).
Youngkin also played with conservative voters’ skepticism about vaccines and Covid masks – views most Virginians do not share. He opposes vaccination warrants for medical workers and teachers, as well as mask warrants in schools. “Like Donald Trump, Glenn Youngkin refuses to take the coronavirus seriously,” the narrator said in a McAuliffe ad.
Youngkin recognizes that he is vulnerable on these issues. He rarely speaks publicly about Trump anymore, and he points out that he himself was vaccinated and encourages others to do so, even though he sees it as a personal decision. He even ran a deceptive, logically tortured ad claiming McAuliffe is anti-vaccine.
The big picture
When you look at the two campaigns together, you see where each of the two parties thinks they are stronger today: crime and the cultural debates that divide for Republicans, Trump and Covid for Democrats.
McAuliffe’s biggest advantage remains the state’s Democratic tilt. His current lead may be small, but it’s still a lead. In the most recent election in Virginia, the polls slightly underestimated the performance of Democrats, notes my colleague Nate Cohn. In contrast, there are still a few weeks left in the race, and the race for governor of Virginia often favors the candidate who is not a member of the presidential party.
Related: John Yarmuth of Kentucky will not seek to be reelected – a sign that House Democrats fear losing their majority.
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