A year after Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points, electing a Democrat as governor should be a slam dunk.
And for a time, Terry McAuliffe looked unbeatable, a popular former governor returning to the statehouse to keep the state blue and ward off any vestiges of Trumpism. His Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, cozied up to Trump enough to win that party’s nomination, running on “election integrity,” a little version of the Big Lie, and sounding more like Mitt Romney than a Trump wannabe.
Even though Trump endorsed Youngkin a half-dozen times, tying the smooth-talking former Carlyle top executive with the crudity of Trump proved elusive, and the ex-president kept his distance, phoning into a rally to boost Youngkin instead of showing up in person. Youngkin thrived in his alone-ness, with no party leaders showing up to boost him.
McAuliffe, by contrast, has hosted a legion of Democratic heavy-hitters culminating in President Biden at a rally Tuesday night in Alexandria, a vote-rich Virginia suburb. The president’s appearance cemented a stunning shift in the race away from a referendum on Trump to a referendum on Biden, an outcome neither Biden nor McAuliffe wanted.
“It’s not necessarily fatal for McAuliffe, but it’s not helpful,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Biden’s poll ratings are down, and he’s not popular in Virginia. He will likely get his ambitious legislative package, but every day that Democrats dither in Washington, McAuliffe takes a hit. “The problem for Terry is the timing,” says Bennett. The inflation that is concerning voters is probably transitory and COVID will likely continue to wane, he says, so the rush of negative news “is not terrible for Biden, but it’s really tough for McAuliffe. He really needed Biden to be popular.”
It’s more than timing, says William Galston, a governance scholar with the Brookings Institution who cites the McAuliffe campaign’s effort to morph Youngkin into Trump as a fundamental error. “It did not work because of who Youngkin is in the same way that the Republican effort to morph Biden into (Bernie) Sanders or into AOC misfired. It’s a warning signal that just yelling ‘Trump! Trump!’ is not going to be an effective campaign everywhere.”
Indeed, painting Youngkin with the Trump brush didn’t come across as authentic even if he did for a time toe the line on the Big Lie and regularly flirt with dog-whistle politics, even invoking George Soros’ name to reassure the conspiracy crowd. Still, he managed to seem so moderate in that red fleece vest, something Trump wouldn’t be caught dead wearing. Where Trump revels in his lack of manners, Youngkin is house-trained.
“If Mitt Romney were running for Virginia governor, this is exactly the tap dance he would be doing,” says Galston.
Youngkin may have found the secret sauce for Republicans in the post-Trump age by zeroing in on education and exploiting parental grievances about everything from mask mandates to equity and inclusion efforts in public school curricula. The tactic is designed to inflame the culture wars and also to rally the suburban moms in northern Virginia who were turned off more by Trump’s manner than his policies.
But Youngkin may have overstepped with a late ad featuring the Virginia mother who challenged the propriety of the book Beloved, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Toni Morrison, being assigned in 2013 to her son, then a high school senior.
The Virginia Democratic Party identifies the woman in the ad, Laura Murphy, as a Republican activist and reports on its website that in 2013, her son told the Washington Post that the book, assigned for his Advanced Placement English course, “was disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.” He also complained that he suffered “night terrors” as a result of reading it. The Dems note that one irony here is that Republicans are rallying around a privileged snowflake who claims a book millions of children have read caused him unbearable trauma.
This is not a new battle in Virginia, and McAuliffe is betting that suburban moms will see it as akin to book banning and a step too far. The GOP-controlled legislature in 2016 passed with bipartisan support the so-called “Beloved bill” to allow parents to opt their children out of sexually explicit reading assignments. McAuliffe vetoed the bill, and that’s what came back to haunt him after he said in their last debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Youngkin seized on that quote to suggest that McAuliffe wants state bureaucrats, rather than parents, deciding what children should be exposed to.
“The quote was a killer,” says Galston. And it’s been dogging McAuliffe, who abruptly ended an interview with a local television station when the reporter kept pressing the issue. At least half of Virginia school boards have put a “Beloved bill” exception in place voluntarily. McAuliffe doesn’t think it should be enshrined in law and re-surfacing the old battle has only made him dig in more.
To add to McAuliffe’s woes, voters are telling pollsters that inflation and rising gas prices are their most immediate concern. The New York Times found that every ingredient of the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner will cost more this year because of inflation, supply-chain interruptions, labor shortages, and bad weather. Almost all of it is beyond Biden’s control, but that doesn’t make it any less lethal politically.
While the White House debates whether the inflation we’re experiencing is transitory or structural, the impact on families is real, and the prices that are going up are especially noticeable with food at the supermarket and gas prices. “People are driven not by national statistics but by their lived daily experience,” says Galston. Polls show the economy edging out COVID as the top concern in Virginia, and Youngkin—the wealthy former co-CEO of a private equity powerhouse—scores better with voters on the economy than McAuliffe.
Youngkin’s promise to eliminate the tax on food in Virginia is suddenly looking prescient, the capstone to a campaign that has gone remarkably well for him and could provide the roadmap for the GOP in next year’s midterms. Republicans are hungry, they haven’t had a statewide win in the state in a decade, and this could be their moment.
“If Mister Affable Dad Next Door with all his money and TV ad persona can’t scrape Trump off his shoe then the Republicans really have stepped in it,” says Matt Bennett with Third Way, who calls it “kind of appalling” that embracing the Big Lie and then sweeping it under the rug could succeed in Virginia if Democrats don’t turn out in the numbers McAuliffe needs to win.