October 8, 2021 – Insight
While Democrats can rightfully take comfort in California Governor Gavin Newsom’s resounding recall victory, the Virginia gubernatorial election is proving to be the more accurate 2021 political bellwether with the potential to offer real clues about 2022 and 2024.
Over the past decade, the Old Dominion state has become more reliably blue with Democratic support in Northern Virginia overwhelming traditional Republican strongholds across the state. Many prognosticators believed that the Virginia race could be competitive, but that ultimately the former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe, a talented, indefatigable campaigner, would best Glenn Youngkin, a political neophyte and former private equity executive running in the problem solver mold of Mitt Romney circa 2002.
Yet, since Labor Day, the race has tightened considerably. Virginia Republican voters appear to be highly motivated to turn out for their candidate. In addition, independents who went heavily Democratic in 2020 and 2018 are signaling a shift back to the GOP. This begs the question of whether this election is a referendum on the Biden agenda and the President’s handling of the pandemic a year ahead of the 2022 midterms. President Biden has seen a significant drop in his approval ratings recently. Voters see Washington as unable to resolve big issues like infrastructure, and possibly greater social welfare spending, while politicians haggle over seemingly routine matters like raising the debt ceiling.
All politics are local and this race may shed light on local patterns that have national implications. Namely, were the Democrats just renting the exurbs like Loudon and Prince William Counties during the Trump years? If Youngkin performs well in these areas, Democrats will have to find ways to regain these footholds heading into a midterm election where Donald Trump is not on the ballot.
Additionally, observers should take note of how much Democratic turnout in the DC suburbs like Arlington and Fairfax wanes from 2020 levels, and consider whether that’s a normal function of an off-year election or a larger enthusiasm gap for the Democrats.
In California, Governor Newsom succeeded in reframing the recall as a referendum on masks in schools and vaccines. McAuliffe is working feverishly to replicate this feat. Youngkin, however, is no Larry Elder, and while Virginia has trended blue in recent years, it is not California. Republicans have a much more sophisticated political infrastructure in Virginia. If McAuliffe is to win, Northern Virginia Democrats and the Independents who turned out for President Biden and Governor Newsom will need to do the same because of their views on masks and vaccines.
Looking ahead to 2024, McAuliffe has stated that he will serve a full term if elected. Yet, he flirted with running for President in 2020 and will no doubt take a hard look at it again in 2023. McAuliffe’s track record as a former governor and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee would immediately vault him to the top of any credible short list of possible “moderate” Presidential candidates should President Biden opt out of a second term.
While national and Virginia Democrats in our network remain confident of a victory in the governor’s race, they expect it to be much narrower than Biden’s win there in 2020. Meanwhile, Republicans seem increasingly buoyant about their chances to pull off an upset. They don’t believe that McAuliffe’s attempts to link Youngkin to Trump or to paint him as an extremist on reproductive rights and vaccine and mask mandates have succeeded.
In a few short weeks, we’ll have the answers to some of these questions. In a fluid national political environment, the Virginia governor’s race takes on even greater political importance this cycle. All eyes will be watching the Old Dominion.
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