Virginia has become a blue state, with a Democrat having won every top-of-the-ticket race — for president, senator or governor — over the past decade. But elections there are often close, especially when the national political climate is favorable to Republicans.
Right now, the political climate again looks promising for Republicans. Congressional Democrats are squabbling over legislative process, rather than passing policies that President Biden has proposed. Biden has also looked less than masterly on several other issues, including Afghanistan, the economy and the pandemic. His approval rating has fallen to about 45 percent.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense that the Virginia governor’s race — one of two this November, along with New Jersey’s — is so close. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who previously held the job, leads Glenn Youngkin, a Republican and former business executive, by only a few points in the polls. Enough voters seem undecided that either could win.
The race obviously matters for Virginia. It will influence state policy on Covid-19, taxes, education, renewable energy and more. The campaign also offers a preview of some of the main themes that Democrats and Republicans are likely to emphasize in next year’s midterm elections.
Today, I want to look at the pitches that the two candidates are making to voters. They are emphasizing not only different stances but also different issues — a sign that Youngkin and McAuliffe largely agree on which issues benefit which political party.
Youngkin’s strategy …
Youngkin has the background of a country-club Republican, having been a top executive at the Carlyle Group, an investment firm, and now self-funding his campaign with his wealth. He won the Republican nomination with a Trump-friendly campaign echoing false claims about voter fraud. Since then, Youngkin has tried to appeal to Virginia’s swing voters, portraying himself as a suburban father and political outsider whose business know-how will help the economy.
That’s his positive message. Much of his advertising has focused on a negative message, trying to tie McAuliffe to what Youngkin calls “the radical left.”
It’s a strategy that helped congressional Republican candidates win some seats in 2020. Like them, Youngkin is focusing on slogans and positions that many progressive activists hold, like Defund the Police or Abolish ICE McAuliffe does not hold some of these positions, nor do most elected Democrats. But at a time when politics have become nationalized, some voters treat each election as a referendum on an entire political party — and they judge the Democratic Party partly based on its high-profile, progressive wing.
(The Times’s Nick Corasaniti notes that many ads in the Virginia race are focused on national issues rather than local ones.)
In one Youngkin ad, uniformed sheriffs criticize McAuliffe for accepting endorsements from “extreme Democrats” and praise Youngkin’s plan to reduce crime. Another ad plays a radio clip in which McAuliffe responds to a question about whether he supports any abortion restrictions by saying he will be “a brick wall” for abortion rights. During a debate, Youngkin described the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border as “absolute chaos.”
His biggest recent focus has been on a statement McAuliffe made during one of their debates, as part of a discussion about school policy toward gender and sexually explicit books: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” (My colleague Lisa Lerer looks more deeply at the role that schools are playing in the campaign.)
Youngkin is essentially trying to run against “wokeism,” knowing that some progressive Democrats favor positions that most Americans do not — including cuts to police budgets, a relatively open immigration policy and virtually no restrictions on abortion.
Progressives are quick to say that some of these appeals are essentially white-identity politics, and that is true. But most of the issues are about more than race, too. And accusing Americans politicians — or voters — of racism is not usually an effective campaign strategy.
… and McAuliffe’s strategy
McAuliffe’s positive message has focused on his record during his previous term as governor (before he had to step aside because Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms). He praises the economy’s performance, the low crime rate and his willingness to work with Republicans. McAuliffe’s negative message has tried to define Youngkin by two issues: Trump and Covid.
Trump lost Virginia to Biden by 10 points, faring especially poorly in the Northern Virginia suburbs that had voted Republican a generation ago. If the governor’s race is a referendum on the national Republican Party, McAuliffe will probably win, and linking Youngkin to Trump is hardly a stretch.
Youngkin won the nomination — decided at a party convention, rather than in a primary — partly by appealing to Trump supporters. “President Trump represents so much of why I’m running,” Youngkin said in a May radio interview (a line that McAuliffe’s campaign has played repeatedly in ads).
Youngkin has also played to conservative voters’ skepticism about Covid vaccines and masks — views that most Virginians do not share. He opposes vaccine mandates for medical workers and teachers, as well as mask mandates in schools. “Like Donald Trump, Glenn Youngkin refuses to take coronavirus seriously,” the narrator in a McAuliffe ad says.
Youngkin recognizes he is vulnerable on these issues. He rarely talks publicly about Trump anymore, and he emphasizes that he himself has been vaccinated and encourages others to do so, even if he sees it as a personal decision. He has even released a misleading, logically tortured ad claiming that McAuliffe is anti-vaccine.
The big picture
When you look at both campaigns together, you see where each of the two parties think they are strongest today: crime and divisive cultural debates for Republicans, Trump and Covid for Democrats.
McAuliffe’s biggest advantage remains the state’s Democratic tilt. His current lead may be small, but it is still a lead. In most recent Virginia elections, polls have if anything slightly underestimated Democrats’ performance, my colleague Nate Cohn notes. On the other hand, the race still has a few weeks remaining, and Virginia’s governor race often favors the candidate who is not a member of the president’s party.
Related: John Yarmuth of Kentucky will not seek re-election — a sign that House Democrats fear losing their majority.
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