Virginia’s neck-and-neck gubernatorial race is triggering deja vu for Democrats—and not in a good way.
Eight years ago, Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s closer-than-expected victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial election presaged a catastrophic Democratic wipeout in the midterms. Now McAuliffe’s comeback attempt is in jeopardy, with polls showing a tossup race between him and Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin heading into next Tuesday’s election.
McAuliffe may well pull it out. But win or lose, the close race is a bad sign for Democrats as they seek to cling to their small majorities in Congress and hang onto a number of key governorships in less-favorable swing states next year.
“It is a tough environment, there’s no question about that,” Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin, who worked on McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign, told VICE News. “We do have real problems where Republicans are very enthusiastic and Democrats are tired. We need to give our voters reason to show up and know that just because we beat Donald Trump last year, that doesn't mean the job is done.”
For more than a half-century, whichever party has held the White House lost Virginia’s gubernatorial race, which always occurs the year following a presidential election. McAuliffe broke that curse in 2013, and the state has moved further to the left since then. Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s 9-point win in 2017, a blowout by Virginia standards, was a precursor to Democrats’ sweeping 2018 midterm wins. But now, with Democrats back in power in Washington, the pendulum has swung back.
“Virginia’s off-year races are often an early warning system for what kind of winds are going to be driving into the midterms,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist and Virginia native. “This is going to be a tough midterm. The Virginia race will tell us which of our strengths still endure and which of the problems we face are most acute.”
Midterm elections are almost always hard for the party that holds the White House. But the stakes of the 2022 midterms are significantly higher than in the past. Many top Republican candidates are embracing Trump’s lies about the 2020 elections while signaling that they’ll handle 2024 much differently than how 2020 went if they’re in power—and Trump is playing hard in primaries to make sure his lackeys get the nomination. That raises the specter of a huge GOP midterm wave that elects a bevy of bad-faith Republicans who won’t accept an election loss for Trump in 2024 and could pose an existential threat to American democracy.
“Republicans across the country have made clear their intention is to win in the midterms so they can rig the system to ensure their perpetual victory in the future,” said Ferguson.
Democrats are scrambling to pull McAuliffe over the finish line. President Joe Biden, who won the state by 10 percentage points just a year ago, is campaigning with him on Tuesday evening. Former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams have all stumped for him in recent weeks.
But Biden’s sagging approval ratings are limiting his ability to help. The president’s approval ratings are underwater nationally, a steep decline over the past three months. Even in Virginia, recent polls show about the same number of voters approve and disapprove of the job Biden is doing.
Obama had similarly poor approval numbers in 2013, when McAuliffe last ran.
But this isn’t exactly like 2013. Youngkin is a much stronger candidate than the GOP’s nominee that year, social conservative firebrand and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (later a senior Trump administration official). But McAuliffe started out in a much stronger position in this race than he did in 2013, as he’d left office with very strong approval ratings.
McAuliffe has pounded relentlessly on Youngkin’s ties to Trump, airing the majority of his ads on the connections. But Youngkin has put just enough daylight between him and former the former president to have a chance in the Democratic-leaning state. While Youngkin has embraced Trump’s endorsement and has carefully courted Trump’s base, he hasn’t had Trump in to campaign for him.
And while Youngkin has talked up “voting integrity” as an issue and dodged a straight answer for months on whether Biden won fair and square, he finally said that Biden was the rightful winner of the election during a debate with McAuliffe, giving himself some distance from Trump.
Instead, Youngkin hammered on an issue the GOP base cares deeply about that isn’t as much of a lightning rod with moderate voters. He’s repeatedly flayed McAuliffe for backing teachers’ unions over schools, combining parental frustration over COVID-19 restrictions with attacks on Critical Race Theory, and has put McAuliffe’s debate line that "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” on a loop in attack ads.
Youngkin’s newest ad features a Virginia mom attacking McAuliffe for vetoing a bill that would have let schools ban books with explicit content—not mentioning that the book she wanted to ban because it gave her teenage son nightmares was Beloved, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about slavery, and that the son in question is now a senior Republican strategist.
That Trump balancing act isn’t one all Republican candidates are seeking out, however. Many statewide GOP candidates in other states are racing to the right to prove their fealty to Trump and the GOP base. That could hurt them in a general election even in more conservative states than Virginia.
“I think you’re going to have some example in ’22 of people who take winnable seats and drive them off the cliff,” Republican former Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock, a Trump critic who’s supporting Youngkin, told VICE News.
Comstock pointed to Senate Republican candidates Herschel Walker in Georgia and J.D. Vance and Josh Mandel in Ohio as the kind of candidates whose fealty to Trump could cost their party winnable races.
“What they’re saying in swing states is crazy stuff. Glenn’s not doing anything like that,” she said.
This has happened before. The 2010 Republican wave election was huge, and delivered them the House and a bevy of governor’s mansions. But it could have been much bigger—and likely handed the GOP the Senate too—if they hadn’t nominated a handful of unelectable wackadoos in key races.
McAuliffe has complained about the national environment, blaming it for the closeness of the race.
Even former President Barack Obama alluded to Democratic burnout as he campaigned for McAuliffe last weekend.
“I understand why people might be tired of politics and the arguments and the tweets and the back and the forth. And some of you’re just plain tired, because this has been hard. I understand why people are frustrated,” Obama said, lamenting COVID burnout.
“We ain’t got time to be tired,” he warned. “What is required is sustained effort.”