Terry McAuliffe Enters the Taylor Swift Phase of Desperation in Virginia Governor’s Race
With early voting underway, Dems are pulling out the stops to try to beat back an unexpectedly strong Republican challenger in a state Biden won by 10 points last year.
The Virginia governor’s race is tighter than expected in a state Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points, and where former governor Terry McAuliffe was favored to return to the statehouse for a second term. Recent polls show the race within the margin of error.
What most alarms Democrats is the lack of enthusiasm on their side and the surprising staying power of Republican Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy private-equity investor who has managed to stay close enough to Trump by advocating for “election integrity” while remaining vague enough on abortion to not scare women in the northern Virginia suburbs.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s dragging numbers are taking a toll on McAuliffe, who now must convince skeptical Democrats that he’s not more of the same with all talk and no action. “The D.C. Democrats have lost all sense of urgency,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “If they don’t pass something in the next 10 days, then they stand to lose Virginia, and if they lose Virginia, their fundraising is going to fall off, and the pundits will go into orbit” about the implications for next year’s midterms, and beyond.
If that isn’t scary enough, there’s more: “If Youngkin wins, there will be more data points for Trump to claim a Youngkin victory is a Trump victory and to use that to justify running in 2024,” says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and a native Virginian.
To head this off, McAuliffe is revving up his engagement with younger voters with digital ads on Facebook where he asks: “Did you know that Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, helped buy Taylor Swift’s masters out from under her when he was co-CEO of the Carlyle Group?” The digital ads are being micro-targeted to the singer’s fans and Virginians who Google her name and quote Youngkin saying he’s confident the Taylor Swift deal will be a “successful investment.”
It’s unclear how involved Youngkin was with the 2019 deal but the Carlyle Group did finance the sale to Scooter Braun, who Taylor Swift has called “a bully” unfairly profiting from her work both by purchasing her masters and then selling them to another investor. According to Axios "Carlyle was a passive minority investor in Ithaca,” Braun’s holding company, “without a say in operational decisions."
But what’s incontrovertible is that the Carlyle Group helped put up the money for the purchase of Swift’s masters while Youngkin was co-CEO. In a campaign appearance, Youngkin said that he would “own everything that happened in Carlyle because I was there.”
The ad campaign is a small part of a bigger push to save McAuliffe—and the Democratic Party by extension—from a humiliating defeat. To try and head that off, Democrats are staging a rescue mission reminiscent of what they did when California Governor Gavin Newsom faced a recall effort last month and appeared to be plagued by the same sort of inertia Democrats are seeing in Virginia before easily prevailing in that contest.
Stacey Abrams will be doing “souls to polls” early voting on Sunday, and the following Saturday President Obama will hit the campaign trail in Virginia to instill urgency and passion. First lady Jill Biden kicks off the effort on Friday. Polls show Virginia voters agree with McAuliffe’s positions on key issues like vaccine mandates, masking, and abortion rights; it’s just getting them to vote.
In this final push, voters will see more of Hala Ayala, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, who identifies as Hispanic-Latina, responding to the wishes of younger voters and voters of color to see someone who looks like them and not just another white guy. A member of the House of Delegates and a cybersecurity specialist, she is the mother of two Black children.
Virginia is trending blue, but it’s not blue yet. There’s always a drop-off in the electorate in an off-year election, and the voters most likely not to show up are African Americans and voters under 30 years of age, groups that are notably more Democratic. “Younger voters are a real challenge for them (Democrats),” says Quentin Kidd, who oversees polling at Christopher Newport University. “In our own polling we’ve struggled to find younger voters to interview,” he told the Daily Beast. He suspects dislocation caused by the pandemic has amplified the challenge of engaging younger voters.
Democrats are also having to adjust to a world without Trump on the ballot and that’s causing an “existential anxiety crisis,” says Kidd. Democrats won the majority in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017, and the Senate in 2019, on voter distaste, even hatred, of President Trump. Now that he’s out of the White House, “Trump is not as powerful a motivator. McAuliffe and the Democrats are doing everything to make the race about Donald Trump, and it hasn’t worked,” says Kidd.
McAuliffe calls Youngkin “a Trump wannabee,” and reminds voters at every turn that the former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group has Trump’s endorsement. But Youngkin has deftly navigated the divide in his party, staying silent enough on most issues that The Washington Post dubbed him “Mystery Man” in an extensive profile that notes the “cuss jar” in his campaign headquarters and the Anglican offshoot church he started in his basement more than a decade ago.
Ferguson, the Democratic strategist, says Youngkin is running a Seinfeld campaign. “He wants it to be about nothing.”
This is the first time Virginia has 45 days of no-excuse early voting, and both campaigns are closely monitoring where the early votes are coming from, and where they need to ramp up their GOTV efforts. “In a state Biden won by 10 percentage points, by any reasonable measure, this race should not be this close,” says Steven Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at Mary Washington University. “There are very few persuadable voters, so it’s a base election, and the narrative from both campaigns is that we are at the precipice for democracy if the other party wins. It’s Handmaid’s Tale or socialist nightmare.”
Youngkin has been a surprisingly good candidate and if he wins it could be the beginning of a trajectory that could take him to the U.S. Senate, and even the White House. He’s played his hand deftly in this race, calling for an audit of Virginia voting machines, something that is routinely done, and sends enough of a signal to the Trump base.
“If Youngkin wins, other Republicans will have a good night. They could win back the legislative majority in the House of Delegates,” says Farnsworth.
For that to happen, Youngkin will have to do better than the best a Republican has done in some time. Their last close call with victory in a statewide contest there came in 2014, when former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie got 48.3 percent against Democratic Senator Mark Warner. Since then, thanks to Trump, Democrats have had an easier time. There is a third-party candidate, Princess Blanding with the Liberation Party, who is polling under 1 percent, which could matter in a race where McAuliffe can’t seem to get above 50 percent in the polls.