Virginia Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. No races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, senator, or president. There are a couple of different ways to interpret this information.
One is to assume that Virginia is a comfortably blue state, the once-supreme Virginia Republican Party irrevocably damaged by extreme candidates incapable of winning elections. The other interpretation is that Virginia Republicans are due for one.
The only reason to be surprised that the governor’s race, between Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, is so close would be to have believed the first interpretation, which is false. Virginia Republicans may not be “due” anything on Nov. 2, but the fundamentals of the race point toward a tight contest.
The FiveThirtyEight public polling average shows McAuliffe with a 3.3 percentage point lead over Youngkin, one that’s narrowed from higher single digits earlier this summer. Democratic groups working the race say that trend is roughly in line with their private polling. The Cook Political Report last week moved the race to “toss-up” status, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball still has the race as “Leans Democratic.”
“We haven’t seen any reason to change it yet—and I emphasize yet,” Larry Sabato, the eponymous publisher of Sabato’s Crystal Ball and director of the UVA Center for Politics, told me late last week. “Because the trends aren’t necessarily good for the Democrats, but the Republicans have to find the votes.”
The Virginia governor’s race has, historically, been one of the easiest races to forecast: The candidate from the party not controlling the White House would win. For 36 years beginning in 1977, the party that had lost the presidential race in the previous year won the governor’s mansion. That streak broke in 2013, when McAuliffe defeated Ken Cuccinelli during Obama’s second term in office, cementing the change in the commonwealth’s perceived political character. The fast-growing Northern Virginia suburbs had turned strongly blue, overwhelming the Republican shift in rural parts of the state. The Republican Party, finding itself on the losing side of these trends, panicked and turned further right, often nominating unpalatable hard-liners, like Cuccinelli in 2013 or Corey Stewart for Senate in 2018, who couldn’t hold the center.
But how blue is this new “blue Virginia”? Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points. But that was with white, suburban, college-educated professionals, optimized to come out hard with Donald Trump on the ballot.
“Virginia’s not California,” Sabato told me. “It’s blue-ish So it doesn’t take that much of a shift” for Republicans to win.
And the atmospherics are all there for Republicans to realize that shift. Youngkin is at least attempting to appeal to moderates, rather than speaking strictly to the base. Plus, President Biden’s approval rating has tanked in the past couple of months, creating a “downdraft that is hurting McAuliffe,” Sabato said. “There’s just no question about it.” McAuliffe’s team, he added, “can’t grumble publicly, but they’re grumbling about it privately.”
“That’s the difference in this race from now and two months ago,” Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia, told me. “When Terry announced, the first thing he did was come out with Joe Biden. I don’t think he’s going to be doing that again.”
And then there’s enthusiasm: So far, Republicans have it, and Democrats don’t. That’s the traditional Virginia dynamic for when there’s a Democrat in the White House. But Virginia Republicans aren’t just eager to express disapproval over Biden. They want the state back after eight long years, too.
“It’s kind of an iron rule of politics that the longer your coalition has been in power, the more difficult it is to sustain and continue it,” Sabato said. “If you look at this state’s history, it’s tough to get a third term. And the Republicans have lost everything for a decade. That causes them to be desperate and therefore intense, and show a kind of extreme enthusiasm. … Democrats are sitting on their damn asses on the couch. Everyone knows it. Everyone feels it.” The key thing Sabato is watching to determine whether he changes his forecast to a “toss-up” is whether Democratic enthusiasm improves.
McAuliffe isn’t, personally, a candidate who draws mass enthusiasm; UVA students are not hanging posters of him in their dorm rooms. While he left office a relatively popular governor, he’s still the embodiment of the Democratic establishment: a former governor, a party operative, a trusted ally of the Clintons, a fundraiser, and a former DNC chair. The center, though, can live just fine with him.
McAuliffe is excellent at stoking Democratic fears about the other side, and he has a couple of wedge issues working well to his advantage. Mask and vaccine mandates poll quite well in Virginia, and McAuliffe has leaned into the issue; Youngkin, meanwhile, has spoken out against such mandates. The extreme Texas abortion law has thrust reproductive rights to the forefront of the campaign in Virginia, too, and Youngkin was caught on tape this summer saying he can’t share his true views on the issue without alienating independents but could go on “offense” once in office. McAuliffe’s most potent wedge issue, though, may still be Donald Trump, whose support (and supporters) Youngkin wooed in the primary. His pivot to the general election has been predictably awkward, and Trump himself is keeping tabs on how much separation Youngkin tries to make between them.
None of these wedge issues, though, will save the day if Democrats don’t wake up and recognize that their blue-ish state’s governorship, as well as its Legislature, are up for grabs in a deteriorating environment. Some Virginia Democrats close to the race are a little irritated that the full national cavalry came in to support California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in a much bluer state, after one bad poll came out in his recall, but haven’t been similarly sounding the alarm in a race that was always going to be much, much closer. One national Democratic operative told me, “Terry up 3 in this environment is actually pretty good for a Democrat in Virginia.”
Democrats, in Sabato’s estimation, are “being Democrats” about this race.
“They tune out, it’s not the presidential, this isn’t important enough for them. They don’t see the stakes, they’re busy. Republicans think about this all the time, plus they’ve been frustrated for an entire decade. They are dying to get back in.”