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Terry McAuliffe vs. Glenn Youngkin: Virginia governor's race tests Biden, Democrats before 2022

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WASHINGTON – Democrats enlisted some of their biggest political stars to barnstorm the state of Virginia, where an unexpectedly tight race for the governor's mansion has set off alarm bells over the party's political standing and President Joe Biden's agenda before next year's midterm elections.

First lady Jill Biden heads to Richmond on Friday to stump for Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor who holds a slim polling lead over Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin in a commonwealth where Republicans haven't won statewide in a decade. Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former President Barack Obama have been tapped to appear on the campaign trail in the final weeks as McAuliffe looks to boost turnout in an off-year election.

The bellwether race may have wider implications for the Democratic Party, reinforcing its brand despite Biden's sagging polls and giving a critical boost to stalled efforts in Congress to pass the president's pair of domestic spending bills. The outcome could determine whether McAuliffe's campaign is a blueprint for vulnerable Democrats in other closely divided states or a warning sign about the mood of the electorate.

"The reality is if Youngkin wins, this will be a big problem for Biden's agenda because some of the Democratic members of Congress who are on the fence on some of Biden's initiatives will be less inclined to support a president who doesn't seem to be as favorably viewed as he was a year ago," said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia.

A 2022 warning shot

Democrats have won Virginia in every presidential election since 2008, and Biden defeated President Donald Trump there by 10 percentage points nearly a year ago.

Biden's waning popularity after the fallout from the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, a surging coronavirus delta variant, concerns over inflation and intraparty fighting that stalled the passage of the president's domestic agenda has been a challenge for McAuliffe.

"The 2021 campaign so far is showing us that the reports of Virginia as a blue state have been premature," Farnsworth said. "This election, at least, looks like what you'd see in a purple state."

Republican Glenn Youngkin, right, makes a point to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the final debate between the candidates before the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election.
Republican Glenn Youngkin, right, makes a point to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the final debate between the candidates before the Nov. 2 gubernatorial election.

McAuliffe, a close Biden ally, cited the president's unpopularity in Virginia during a virtual meeting with supporters last week and expressed frustration over Democratic disputes that led Congress to delay voting on a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a more sweeping spending package aimed at expanding the social safety net.

"They all got to get their act together and vote," he told The Associated Press.

The Virginia Democrat's push for Congress to pass the bills underscores the belief that his political fortunes are tied to whether Democrats in Washington can effectively govern and deliver big legislative wins, according to Jessica Taylor, an analyst at The Cook Political Report.

"Democrats need some sort of win to point to after nine months in office," Taylor said.

Biden, who stumped for McAuliffe in late July, was missing from the list of Democratic stars headed to Virginia in the final weeks before the election. McAuliffe insisted that Biden would cross the Potomac River once more before election day, Nov. 2.

"He’ll be coming back. You bet he will," he said at an education roundtable in Alexandria Tuesday.

Kyle Kondik, election analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the state's gubernatorial race has a long history of breaking against whichever party controls the White House.

"There's a bit of a handicap for being the White House party candidate in this race," he said.

Pundits shouldn't put too much focus on the Virginia race as a harbinger for next year, Kondik said. He pointed out that McAuliffe won in 2013 despite Obama's low approval ratings in Virginia – the first White House party candidate to break the streak of the opposite party in power winning the governor's mansion in nearly 40 years. And that didn't translate into a good turnout for the 2014 midterms when Democrats lost control of the Senate.

A McAuliffe loss could have spillover consequences for candidate recruitment before next year, Kondik said, and members of Congress who may be considering retirement could take the loss as a signal that they could be serving in the minority in 2023.

The Trump foil

McAuliffe has taken a page from the Democratic playbook that helped California Gov. Gavin Newsom overcome a recall election last month by repeatedly assailing Youngkin as a local version of Trump and warning of a GOP-led Virginia.

Youngkin has tried to strike a balance between embracing Trump's support and distancing himself from the former president to appeal to more moderate and base voters.

"This is very much a base election. Both campaigns are trying to make sure that the people who vote for them will actually show up and cast a ballot," Farnsworth said.

If Youngkin wins or the race is closer than Democrats would like, "that would suggest that Donald Trump was a much more useful foil for Democrats when he was president rather than when he's a former president," Farnsworth said.

Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks with members of Eastville Police Department.
Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks with members of Eastville Police Department.

Youngkin, a former private equity executive, skipped a rally hosted by former Trump aide Steve Bannon on Thursday. Trump called into the event and praised Youngkin as a "great gentleman."

Youngkin has focused on hot button national issues such as critical race theory, which is not taught in K-8 classes in Virginia, as well as COVID-19 vaccine mandates, public safety and transgender rights in schools – a reflection of the Trump agenda, according to Taylor.

"Republicans are using this as one of the first tests to see if these issues resonate with some of those suburban voters who we saw swing heavily away from Trump last year," she said.

Enthusiasm gap

Virginia governors are prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term, which provides a national barometer of how voters feel about the party in power, Farnsworth said.

The star-studded list of Democrats campaigning for McAuliffe signals concern that the election is less about reaching moderate voters and more about motivating people to turn out, raising questions about broader enthusiasm heading into next year, he said.

"A successful Democratic campaign in Virginia needs a high level of voter turnout from African Americans and voters under 30 and the list of upcoming candidate visits seems like a pretty good way to maximize the motivation of those groups," Farnsworth said.

Virginia gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe left, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, talk during the Virginia FREE Leadership Luncheon in McLean, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.
Virginia gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Terry McAuliffe left, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, talk during the Virginia FREE Leadership Luncheon in McLean, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021.

Lance Bottoms, who Biden considered as a running mate, and Abrams, who narrowly lost the Georgia governor's race in 2018, will appear with McAuliffe this weekend to help energize Black voters.

Taylor said the use of the party's biggest surrogates underscores Democratic worry about getting voters to the ballot box.

"I think you're going to hear them really sort of emphasizing what mistakes could be made if a Republican is elected, what that could mean for the country, what that could mean for Virginia," she said.

But the off-year electorate is whiter, more conservative and includes fewer people under 30, Farnsworth said, demographics that could benefit Youngkin.

"All those differences between the gubernatorial electorate and the presidential electorate favor the Republicans," he said. "The question is do they favor the Republicans enough."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Election 2021: Virginia governor's race may be warning shot for Biden

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