The eyes of a polarized nation are about to turn to Virginia, as the commonwealth’s upcoming statewide elections — for control of the governor’s mansion and also the state Legislature — will be used as an interpretive lens to predict where the country is headed politically.
Four years ago, the win by Virginia’s current Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, was the first time voters had registered their displeasure with then-President Donald Trump and foreshadowed the big wins Democrats would have in the 2018 midterms, as well as Trump’s defeat in 2020.
The 2021 election in Virginia is often framed as an uphill battle for the Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity CEO with the Carlyle Group. The state has not elected a Republican statewide since 2009, and President Biden beat Trump by 10 points in the commonwealth last year. Once a reliably red state, Virginia has voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since 2008.
And so if Youngkin beats his Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, it will likely be taken as a sign that the Republican Party is bound for big wins in the 2022 midterm elections, with control of the House almost certain and control of the Senate within its grasp.
There is likely some truth to that. Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie in 2017 by just over 200,000 votes, and about half of that margin came from the northern Virginia suburbs, just outside D.C.
Northam got 100,000 more votes in northern Virginia than McAuliffe got four years earlier. And support for Gillespie went down in that same area by about 14,000 votes.
In short, Northam’s landslide win was driven by one thing: loathing for Trump among northern Virginia voters, who are largely college-educated and racially diverse. There are plenty of Republicans in northern Virginia, but not many Trump Republicans.
But 2021 is not 2017. Trump is no longer president, and Northam is prevented from running for reelection due to term limits. Biden’s popularity has been trending downward amid the rise of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, increased fears of sustained inflation and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
So if Youngkin can beat McAuliffe in just under seven weeks, it will be a sign that Republicans can win back some of the suburban voters who could not stand Trump but are also unenthused about the Democratic Party. Polls have shown McAuliffe, who was governor from 2014 to 2018, narrowly leading Youngkin.
And Youngkin is in many ways the antithesis of the Republican candidate who lost to McAuliffe eight years ago: former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Youngkin is personally wealthy and can self-finance. He’s a businessman, not an ideologue. He’s a smooth campaigner who looks good on TV.
The first of three debates between the two candidates, on Thursday night, showcased Youngkin’s stylistic strengths. But the showdown also illustrated the ways in which he is on the defensive when it comes to many of the issues likely to move votes in northern Virginia: abortion, COVID vaccine and mask mandates, voting rights and elections, and racial issues.
Youngkin was at pains to demonstrate to moderate voters in northern Virginia that he is for the vaccine, he is against the Texas abortion law recently passed by the Republican Legislature there, he does not think Virginia elections have been tainted by fraud in the past, and Confederate statues like that of Robert E. Lee should be placed in museums after they are taken down from places of honor.
That last point was a major concession on the issue of race and history, since many Republicans have accused those who have advocated for taking Confederate statues out of public squares and into museums of wanting to “erase history.”
Republican Corey Stewart, who narrowly lost the 2017 Republican primary for governor to Gillespie, said then, “You should never take a monument down, because at that point you’re trying to sanitize history. You’re trying to erase history.” A statue of Lee, who led Confederate forces in and around Virginia during the Civil War, was recently removed and chopped up in the capital city, Richmond. Trump protested this action, saying, “Our culture is being destroyed.”
And McAuliffe did a capable job of putting Youngkin even further on the defensive by pointing out ways he has tried to appeal to the right wing of the Republican Party. McAuliffe forced his opponent to admit he does not want to mandate vaccines even for nurses in hospitals taking care of immunocompromised patients, and the McAuliffe campaign released audio of Youngkin telling college students to fill out an exception form “for whatever reason” if they don’t want the vaccine.
Similarly, on abortion, McAuliffe highlighted previous comments by Youngkin. In July, video of Youngkin — taped by an activist at a fundraiser — showed him saying he cannot win the governor’s race if he talks about abortion too much. “I’m gonna be really honest with you — the short answer is, in this campaign I can’t,” Youngkin says in the recording. “When I'm governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”
On Thursday night, Youngkin called McAuliffe “the most extreme pro-abortion candidate in America today.”
McAuliffe said Youngkin “wants to ban abortions.” He added: “I support a woman’s right to make her own decisions through the second trimester.” Laws surrounding the issue made headlines in Virginia in 2019, after Northam was criticized by Republicans for supporting a bill that would allow third-trimester abortions in some cases.
Abortion is poised to become a decisive issue in the 2022 midterm elections nationwide. The Supreme Court — with its newly empowered conservative majority — is set to hear arguments this fall in a Mississippi case in which the state has asked the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide and took the issue away from the states. The court’s ruling is expected in the spring or summer of 2022, a few months before voters go to the polls in the midterms.
And of course, McAuliffe took every opportunity to tie Youngkin to Trump. Youngkin said earlier this year that “President Trump represents so much of why I’m running.” And during the Republican primary earlier this year, in which he defeated some more avowedly right-wing candidates, Youngkin talked a lot about “election integrity,” which has become a code word among many GOP politicians to signal to their Trump-supporting voters that they are sympathetic, at the very least, to Trump’s lies about a stolen election in 2020.
Youngkin also did not admit that Biden was legitimately elected until after he won the GOP nomination in May.
Trump implied in a talk radio interview with a local show this month that Democrats would try to cheat their way to winning the Virginia election. “You know how they cheat in elections. The Virginia governor’s election — you better watch it,” he said.
Youngkin, asked about those comments, rejected Trump’s accusation.
“I do not believe there’s been significant fraud in previous elections,” Youngkin said. “I think we’re going to have a clean, fair election, and I fully expect to win.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Harnik/AP, Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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