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President Joe Biden’s agenda faces its clearest referendum so far in the upcoming Virginia governor’s race, and he showed no confusion about that fact on Tuesday when he appeared at a prime time rally alongside Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate.
While the Democratic Party’s top campaigner took time to tout the strengths of Mr McAuliffe, a longtime party loyalist and ally of the Clinton family, he spent just as much time attempting to tie Republican Glenn Youngkin to former president Donald Trump and the pro-Trump fervour that has decisively controlled the GOP for years.
Most revealingly, the rally took place in Virginia’s Arlington County, a Democratic stronghold and an area of the state considered almost an unofficial part of Washington DC itself. Mr McAuliffe and Democrats have focused their efforts on the Northern Virginia suburbs, while Mr Youngkin canvasses the state’s southern half for Virginia’s disappearing conservative base.
The president arrived minutes after pool reports indicated he met with Kyrsten Sinema, one of two conservative Democrats considered by most to be holding up passage of his first major legislative effort outside of a Covid-19 relief package he signed into law earlier this year.
In the cold Virginia air, Mr Biden spoke alongside just about every top Democrat official in the state, minus the notable absence of Justin Fairfax, the state’s lieutenant governor. Like Governor Ralph Northam, who became persona non grata in the Democratic Party after a blackface scandal surrounding his old yearbooks, Mr Fairfax clung to his position after sexual assault allegations were raised against him in 2019; he has denied the accusations.
The president’s address was jovial at times, including when he was briefly interrupted by protesters calling for immigration and climate change provisions to remain in his Build Back Better plan, but ultimately focused much on Mr Youngkin’s connections to Mr Trump and the Republican Party at large.
“I ran against Donald Trump, and Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump,” the president declared. Addressing Mr Youngkin’s past embrace of the former president before his campaign’s pivot to the general election and subsequent attempts to distance the candidate from Mr Trump.
Mr Biden added: “Think about it, he won’t allow Donald Trump to campaign for him in this state, and he’s willing to pledge his loyalty to Trump in private? Why not in public? What’s he trying to hide? Is there a problem with Trump being here? Is he embarrassed?”
Though Mr Biden’s infrastructure agenda has been on the minds of most DC reporters in recent weeks, the president’s speech on Tuesday veered away from that to address red meat aimed at energising Democratic voters: the attempts to roll back abortion access in Texas, Mississippi and other states, as well as a new ad from Republicans in Virginia seeking to cast Mr McAuliffe as an enemy of conservative efforts to broaden parents’ control of schools and teachers.
Mr McAuliffe’s supporters have jumped on the now-viral ad, which was revealed to be nothing more than the mother of a Republican Party official’s complaints about her white son being forced to read a Toni Morrison novel about former slaves.
Campaign staffers handed rally attendees brand-new copies of Ms Morrison’s novel Beloved and other works by the author. Mr McAuliffe then proceeded to portray the episode as just the latest attempt by mostly white conservatives in the US to fight against any kind of content or historical facts that treat the Confederacy, slavery, and Jim Crow America as racist.
More effectively, the accusations also served to connect Mr Youngkin’s campaign to the growing scenes of conflict at school board meetings around the country, where furious conservatives have attacked and threatened teachers and board officials for enforcing Covid-19 guidelines as well as over panic about supposed teachings of “critical race theory”.
“Glenn Youngkin is promoting banning books by one of America’s most prominent black authors,” charged Mr McAuliffe. “Just the fact that he is even discussing this brings shame here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Virginia’s gubernatorial election will be held Tuesday, 2 November. Recent polls have shown the race separated by just a few percentage points while Mr McAuliffe has held a steady but slim lead.
Virginia is often considered a bellwether state, pointing to political trends elsewhere with its moderate, purple political status. The state also holds gubernatorial elections on off years, which offers a key test for the incumbent president and congressional majorities on a more local level. A host of national issues have played a part in the Virginia campaign. The race has tightened in recent weeks, prompting former president Barack Obama and Mr Biden to stump for Mr McAuliffe.
Actions by Republican leaders in Texas echoed loudly at the rally. Nearly every speaker mentioned GOP efforts to fight abortion access in some manner.
Mr Biden himself delivered one of his strongest condemnations of the modern-day GOP in his own remarks on the subject, a sharp departure from his previous touting of friendships with GOP senators on Capitol Hill.
“A woman’s right to choose is very much at risk because of what’s happening in Texas,” said the president. “If you want to protect your right to choose in Virginia, you need a governor actually committed to protecting that right.”
“The Republican Party nationally stands for nothing,” Mr Biden went on to assert. “Not a joke. Nothing. Just look around. Just look around, what’s happening with the governor[s] of Texas and Florida.”
Other speakers at Tuesday’s rally included Mr Northam, who hopes Mr McAuliffe will succeed him as the next Democrat to lead the purple state, as well as Reps Don Beyer and Bobby Scott. Mark Herring, the state’s attorney general who has used his position to champion issues such as abortion access, also attended and delivered an address before Mr McAuliffe took the stage around 8pm.
They followed largely the same theme throughout the event: Warn about the efforts of national Republicans to oppose Democratic priorities like voting rights and abortion access, while tying Mr Youngkin and his campaign to the broader GOP. One early speaker even went as far as to warn that the entire country was headed for a wave of Republican victories if the Virginia governor’s mansion fell.
“We need an education governor. We don’t need someone who is whipping people up and making them mad,” said Senator Tim Kaine, making a clear reference to the anger seen in viral videos of school board meetings around the country.
One of the loudest responses from the crowd of hundreds on Tuesday night was elicited by Susan Swecker, the state Democratic Party chair, who triggered a chorus of loud boos when she warned that Mr Youngkin would usher in “Georgia-style voter suppression laws” if elected.
For his part, Mr Youngkin took essentially the opposite tactic on Tuesday at his own rally in the southern half of the state.
In an address that lasted less than a half hour, the GOP candidate delivered a message that did not once mention either Mr Biden or Mr Trump, whose shadow remains over the race despite efforts by Mr Youngkin to focus attention on Mr McAuliffe.
His address took noted digs at Mr McAuliffe while largely focusing on his policy platform. However, it remains to be seen whether he will be successful in keeping his distance from Mr Trump in the final days of the race.
Former vice president Mike Pence is set to hold a rally in support of “educational freedom” in the northern Virginia county of Loudoun on Thursday; there’s no indication that Mr Youngkin plans to attend, but a continued focus on school issues by the vice president while Mr McAuliffe hammers his opponent on the same issue is only likely to add gasoline to that fire.