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WASHINGTON – Like its predecessors, the bitterly tight race for the Virginia governor's mansion is in many ways a referendum on the president – except this year, it depends on which president you're talking about.
For Youngkin and his backers, the election is more about tying McAuliffe to an increasingly unpopular president, Joe Biden, who has seen his approval ratings fall in the commonwealth of Virginia and across the country.
Neither Biden nor Trump is on the ballot in Virginia, but the two presidents play an outsized role in a battle that could serve as a national barometer before next year's midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections.
The off-year race in a recently-blue state remains virtually deadlocked in the final stretch, raising questions about the power of Biden's political brand in a state he won by 10 percentage points last year and the potency of Trump as a foil to the Democrats.
Terry McAuliffe vs. Glenn Youngkin: Virginia governor's race tests Biden, Democrats before 2022
"How well do you know Terry’s opponent?" Biden asked a crowd of 2,500 supporters last week on a blustery night in Arlington, about 4 miles from the White House. "Well, just remember this: I ran against Donald Trump. And Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump."
As part of a last-ditch effort to turn out voters, Biden appeared alongside McAuliffe for a 15-minute speech in which he invoked his predecessor's name 24 times and repeatedly upbraided Youngkin for embracing Trump to win the GOP nomination.
"It was a price he’d have to pay for the nomination, and he paid it. But now he doesn’t want to talk about Trump anymore," Biden said of Youngkin. "Well, I do."
Youngkin popped up on Fox News on Wednesday, the day after the Biden rally, to describe the president's speech as "standard rhetoric from a failing campaign." He said Biden and McAuliffe "are on the side of big government. I’m on the side of parents and students."
Whoever loses the McAuliffe-Youngkin race, Biden or Trump will be blamed.
"What's different about 2021 is that we're really having a conversation that involves two presidents," said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. "Donald Trump's aggressive efforts to remain relevant are creating an environment where the people who don't like Biden are countered by the people who don't like Trump."
The ex-factor: Trump
It's not unusual for current presidents to be factors in Virginia and other states that hold odd-year elections. (New Jersey is the only other state to hold a gubernatorial election this year, and incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy is a heavy favorite.)
In 1993, governor wins by Republicans George Allen in Virginia and Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey were the first signs of a voter backlash against first-year President Bill Clinton. He and Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 elections, though Clinton won reelection in 1996.
Four years ago, the tumult surrounding the Trump presidency in its first year gave Republican Ed Gillespie little chance to defeat Democrat Ralph Northam in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race. Northam won by 9 percentage points, and Democrats won control of the U.S. House in 2018. Democrats went on to take the Senate and the presidency in the 2020 elections.
What's unusual about this Virginia race is Trump: Despite his rejection at the polls in 2020 and his impeachment over the Jan. 6 insurrection by his supporters, he continues to inject himself into political races.
Abortion, Donald Trump and COVID-19: Virginia governor's race emerges as a bellwether
Pollster Frank Luntz said most former presidents "go gently into the good night," the way Barack Obama and George W. Bush did.
Trump maintains a too-high regard for his vote-drawing ability and a lack of understanding about how he hurts some Republican candidates with moderate voters, Luntz said. The pollster said Trump reminds him of lyrics from the old Simon and Garfunkel song "The Boxer:" "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."
Trump was involved in two Senate runoffs in January that Republicans lost, costing the GOP control of that chamber of Congress.
"Trump has made himself a factor," Luntz said. "If this (Virginia) race is decided by a point or two, Trump may have again cost the Republicans a race."
Lara Brown, director and professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, said Trump has repeatedly proved to be a Republican election liability. She cited the Georgia Senate races, the GOP loss of the U.S. House in the 2018 elections and the loss of the presidency in 2020.
"Were Youngkin to lose, Trump would be seen as more of an anchor than a life raft," Brown said.
Youngkin has tried to walk a fine line: appealing to Trump voters on priorities such as tax cuts and hot button issues including school control and public safety but distancing himself from the former president personally. Youngkin and aides made clear they did not want Trump traveling to Virginia in person to stump for him.
“He’s not coming,” Youngkin said Thursday. “And in fact, we’re campaigning as Virginians in Virginia with Virginians. And we’ve got another four days left on our bus tour, and then we’ve gotta fly around, and then we’ve gotta vote.”
McAuliffe and his allies taunted Youngkin that Trump has not visited Virginia to campaign in person for the Republican nominee. Trump did speak by phone to a GOP rally, but Youngkin was not there.
"What's he trying to hide? ... Is he embarrassed?" Biden said during his campaign event for McAuliffe.
Trump teased supporters with the prospect of a late visit in a statement praising those who showed up at the Biden-McAuliffe rally. "Thank you, Arlington, see you soon!" said a written statement from Trump's office.
Trump never did stump in Virginia.
Youngkin and his supporters said McAuliffe's efforts to run against Trump aren't working. They said most voters see the Republican candidate as his own person and will judge him accordingly.
"Voters are looking at the issues of this election and not back to 2020," said Matthew Hurtt, 34, a self-described conservative activist who demonstrated outside McAuliffe and Biden's rally.
The Biden brand
Biden's political brand has lost some of its luster in the wake of the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a surging coronavirus delta variant, concerns over inflation and congressional Democrats' inability to enact his sweeping legislative agenda.
Democratic infighting over a shrinking social spending package and a separate Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, which comprise much of Biden's domestic agenda, has led to anxiety among vulnerable Democrats facing reelection next year and concerns about voter enthusiasm.
McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor who served from 2014 to 2018, acknowledged last month that Biden's drop in approval ratings and the "headwinds from Washington" are major hurdles for his campaign. But the longtime Biden ally has spent more time talking about national issues such as education, abortion and the threat of Trump instead of his party's successes in governing.
"I think Biden's low approval rating is the reason McAuliffe is not winning by 10 points right now," said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University Political Research Center.
McAuliffe's campaign strategy – along with Biden's attack on his predecessor – is a tacit acknowledgment of the former president's power to jolt Democrats to turn out at the polls in record numbers to foil him. A Republican victory would deal a blow to both the administration and Democrats looking to rouse voters to maintain their razor-thin majorities in Congress next year.
"Trump and Biden are absolutely the driving forces in this election," said Ben Tribbett, a veteran Democratic political strategist in Virginia. "I think Virginia was a purple state before Donald Trump, and during the Trump era, we were a deep blue state. I'm not sure that anyone knows exactly what our identity is post-Trump."
Backers: It's the other president who's the problem
McAuliffe's supporters shrug off the idea that Biden could be a political liability, , while Youngkin and allies say the same of Trump.
"Trump? Who's that?" said Dante Salazar, 40, a security worker from Alexandria who campaigned for Youngkin outside the McAuliffe/Biden rally. "Never heard of him – I'm voting for Glenn Youngkin."
Lesley Phillips, 70, a communication executive from Arlington, is a "little worried" about Tuesday's election but said Republican intransigence in Congress – not Democratic divisions – is the biggest frustration among voters.
"The dysfunction that's happening in Congress is making it difficult for all campaigns everywhere – Republican or Democrat," she said. "But I also believe that at the end of the day, the unwillingness of one party to work to find solutions with the other is going to bring McAuliffe another term as governor."
As much as McAuliffe has painted the election as a referendum on a president who is no longer in office, other supporters remain upbeat about his campaign message.
Tina Barchik, a financial executive in Fairfax, said Biden has been more helpful than a hindrance to McAuliffe's campaign.
"Under Democrats, the economy has been the best it's been since COVID started, unemployment is down, the stock market is the best it's ever been. Tell me why you think Democrats can't continue that forward drive?" she said.
Arlington resident Jonathan Gaffney, 60, a retired Navy veteran who attended Biden's rally last week with his wife, Tracy, said the president's message was less about Trump and more about what's at stake in Virginia's election: progress.
"We've made so much progress, and I think what the president said and what (McAuliffe) said is we really want to keep moving forward. We don't want to go backwards," he said.
The state's proximity to the capital makes it hard to escape Washington – and the overwhelming presence of presidents, especially in Virginia's northern suburbs, according to Gaffney.
"After four years of Trump, clearly you can't get away from that," he said. "He's part of almost every political campaign going on right now."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia gubernatorial race a proxy fight between Biden and Trump