Tuesday marks three weeks to go until Election Day in Virginia, and the top-of-the- ticket race remains an extremely close contest in one of just two states to hold gubernatorial elections in the year after a presidential contest.
An average of the latest polls in the race indicates that former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe – who’s running for his old job – holds a slight, single-digit edge over Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin in a state that President Biden won by 10 points in last year’s election and where Republicans haven’t won a statewide contest in a dozen years.
The Cook Report, a top nonpartisan political handicapper, three weeks ago shifted its ranking of the race from “lean Democratic” to “toss up.”
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, participate in their debate at Northern Virginia Community College, in Alexandria, Virginia, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) (AP)
The margin-of-error race in Virginia – a one-time key battleground but still competitive state which is seen as a key bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterm elections – has national Democrats on edge as they defend their razor-thin majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate in next year’s contests.
“Folks, the Virginia Governor’s race is a big deal not just for the Commonwealth but for our country,” Biden wrote to supporters in a fundraising email. And McAuliffe asked in a fundraising email last week, “Are we blowing this?”
Virginia and New Jersey’s elections for governor always grab outsized attention as they’re the only states to hold such contests the year after the presidency’s decided. And there’s a long-running trend of voters in the commonwealth defeating the gubernatorial nominee of the party that controls the White House. McAuliffe broke with that tradition in 2013 with his election as governor. McAuliffe was unable to run for reelection in 2017 because Virginia governors are barred from serving two straight terms.
McAuliffe’s lead over Youngkin, a first-time candidate and former CEO of a large private equity firm, started shrinking over the summer amid the sinking of Biden’s approval ratings due to criticism of the president’s handling of the turbulent U.S. exit from Afghanistan, the surge in COVID-19 cases this summer mainly among unvaccinated people due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant, and the latest surge of migrants trying to cross into the U.S. along the southern border with Mexico.
And the inability to date by the White House and congressional Democrats – due to an intraparty battle between progressives and moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill – to agree on the party’s massive social spending, human infrastructure and climate change package, as well as a bipartisan infrastructure bill – has forced McAuliffe to criticize his own party.
The former governor’s repeatedly said it’s time for lawmakers in Washington “to stop their little chitty-chat up there, and it’s time for them to pass it.”
Biden’s approval ratings in Virginia have deteriorated, and McAuliffe, in a recent video conference clip that Republicans spotlighted, acknowledged that “we are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington, as you know. The president is unpopular today, unfortunately here in Virginia, so we have got to plow through.”
The latest surveys indicate that Republican voters are more motivated than their Democratic counterparts.
“Complacency driven by what’s happening in Washington and with the Biden administration is the biggest threat to McAuliffe and is the driving reason why we moved the race to a toss-up last week,” Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the top nonpartisan handicapper The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, told Fox News recently.
McAuliffe’s trying to energize Democrats – urging them to cast a ballot during ongoing early voting. He’ll team up on the campaign trail next weekend with voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House Democratic leader who in 2018 made history as the first Black woman gubernatorial nominee of a major political party. But he’s also repeatedly linked Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who remains deeply unpopular with many Virginia voters.
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McAuliffe constantly calls Youngkin, who’s been endorsed by the former president, a “Trump wannabe,” and doesn’t miss an opportunity at campaign events, interviews and during the two debates between the nominees to tie Youngkin to Trump.
On Monday, the McAuliffe campaign went up with a new digital ad accusing Youngkin of “putting Trump’s agenda first.”
David Richards, political science chair at the University of Lynchburg, said that “Youngkin has been running a pretty decent campaign as he’s tried to steer towards the middle. He’s adroitly not alienated the Trump fans and he’s appealed to that middle voter.”
And Richards questioned McAuliffe’s Trump strategy, asking, “How scary is Trump right now? He’s not on Twitter, he’s not on the news every night. He’s not the bogeyman that he was last year for Democrats.”
Richards pointed to geography, noting that the election will be won or lost due to turnout in the heavily populated areas of northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads metropolitan region, as well as some of the larger cities like Richmond, Roanoke, Lynchburg or Charlottesville.