Politics

Can the Virginia Governor’s Race Tell Us Anything About the 2022 Midterms?

The pundits sure want it to.

Youngkin speaks at a rally outside surrounded by American flags
Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Stafford, Virginia, on Tuesday. Win McNamee/Getty Images

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The process of running for governor in Virginia seems designed to make politicos nervous. Since the mid-1800s, the state has held off-year gubernatorial elections. That means no drafting off some popular presidential nominee or superstar senator—you gotta build your own coalition. And since there aren’t many other elections to talk about, this race is guaranteed to get a lot of attention. You can’t hide from the strategists and journalists next door in Washington who are looking to divine meaning from your electorate.

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November’s gubernatorial race is between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor of Virginia four years ago, and Republican Glenn Youngkin, who has never been elected to anything. The last time a Republican won statewide office was in 2009, but the right seems particularly energized this year—and that has Democrats worried. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Ben Paviour, state politics reporter for VPM, about who’s up, who’s down, and what, if anything, Virginia can tell us about the national political mood going into 2022. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: For the last decade or so, there’s been a story political people have told themselves about Virginia. It goes like this: Suburban voters have been turning against ugly Republican talking points. As a result, an increasingly diverse and urbane place like Virginia is getting purpler and purpler.

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Just two years ago, Democrats were celebrating an immense victory: having flipped the state House of Delegates and state Senate. The governor and both senators were Dems too. It seemed like a turning point. But the tight margins in this year’s gubernatorial contest have made some people start to question that logic.

Ben Paviour: The polls have become closer and closer. McAuliffe has around a 3-point edge in the average of polls. It, I think, is really going to come down to turnout. And so what we’re seeing is both candidates really trying to gin up enthusiasm, make sure people know there’s an election and just get them to the polls.

The national mood is hugely important in Virginia. There’s a tradition stretching back 30-plus years that the party that won the White House loses Virginia’s off-year election the next year, they lose the governor’s race in Virginia the next year. The only person to break that streak was Terry McAuliffe in 2013.

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The fact that their candidate this year beat the odds last time around is one of the things giving Democrats hope. Governors in Virginia are prohibited from serving consecutive terms, which is why McAuliffe is running again after a four-year break. He’s been a party stalwart for decades.

He was a fundraiser, head of the DNC for a stretch in the early 2000s.

He was a fundraiser for the Clintons.

Exactly. Tight connections to a number of high-profile Democrats. Staged his first run in 2009, didn’t win the nomination. Democrats ended up losing that year in Virginia. Ran again in 2013. Pulled off a narrow win against Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican who served for a stretch in the Trump administration down the road. And McAuliffe presided over a legislature that was heavily Republican, so he faced challenges in getting much done, and he spent a lot of his time focusing on economic development. He was all over the place trying to ink economic deals that would bring jobs and manufacturing and that kind of thing to Virginia.

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It sounds like such an old-school Democrat kind of vibe.

Very much so. I mean, he’s somebody who backed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, this big infrastructure project that was going to come through Virginia, which was canceled last year. He ran on that platform, as a centrist Democrat, which has played very well with the Virginia electorate in the last 20 years. And his tune has changed a little bit since then, but I think he is still running on what he did as governor, particularly his economic development and focusing on jobs, on the economy, those sorts of things.

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It seems to me the major selling point of Terry McAuliffe is his connection to D.C. But we’re at such a funny moment where Joe Biden is working like hell to get his agenda passed, but reaching a lot of roadblocks when it comes to Congress. How is McAuliffe handling that on the campaign trail?

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Recently, he has really stepped up calls for Congress to pass the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. I think he wants a tangible win to take voters on the campaign trail from this administration and from the Democratic-controlled Congress. That said, I don’t think that’s his only platform. I think he could still win if they don’t do that. It’s quite likely they won’t do that before Election Day. He’s also talking a lot about the pandemic and a lot about Donald Trump, and I think those other issues could help him. We’ll see.

The Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, is doing this funny two-step of being a Republican in a state with a history of conservatism, but over the last few years has done this step back from Republican base politics. So how is Youngkin presenting himself? Is he presenting himself as someone who’s aligned with Trump?

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It’s a real dance with Youngkin on the relationship with Trump. It’s worth pointing out that I think a year ago, so few Republicans even knew who Glenn Youngkin was. He had stepped down as CEO of the Carlyle Group, this private equity firm. He was not a known name in Virginia politics by any stretch of the imagination. Never been in public service, something he stresses a lot on the campaign trail. And he just kind of swooped into the scene for this Republican nomination fight. I remember going to an event, I think it was in April or May before they held this convention, and some of the other candidates were there and spoke and they had kind of low-key presence. And then Youngkin came in and you could tell there was a sort of celebrity aura around him among Republicans, even at that point. People kind of rushed over to take their photos.

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Just because he had a lot of money?

He had already sort of established his name. He was buying TV ads, which in some cases talked about his connection to Trump. Trump mentioned the Carlyle Group and his name in a speech once, and they used that clip in an early ad. And so he was running as somebody who could hold the Trump base together, but who could also appeal to a certain kind of maybe moderate voter who has drifted away from Republicans.

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I’ve heard him described as a country club Republican. He’s tall, he’s handsome, he’s charismatic. When you meet him, he’s very personable. And a lot of the campaign he’s spent talking about things like education and eliminating the grocery tax. And so he’s kind of talking to the Trump base at moments and then also talking to these other voters. And if the polls are to be believed, he seems to be successfully threading that needle. Whether it’ll win him the election, that’s another story.

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It sounds a little bit like Mitt Romney 2.0.

I think he would be flattered by that comparison, although his supporters, probably some of them would not be. He’s built an interesting tent. There’s people like state Sen. Amanda Chase in Virginia, who has paid visits to Arizona to watch the air-quote “audit” that happened there. She’s been someone who’s stumped quite a bit for him, talks a lot about election integrity and how Youngkin’s gonna strengthen elections. Youngkin himself has made various nods to that. He was very evasive early on on whether there was any widespread fraud when I asked him that back in the convention, and then as soon as he won the convention, his tune changed, he said Biden was legitimately elected president. His campaign actually took down some of his old videos around certain topics like election integrity. And he still talks about it, but it’s not the issue that he’s personally taking to the polls. He’s relying on other surrogates to kind of carry that message to the more Trump-aligned base.

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He had this decision point last week because Steve Bannon wanted to hold a rally for him. What happened?

So that rally happened in suburban Richmond, and Steve Bannon is actually a resident of the Richmond area. It was a litany of conspiracy theories around the 2020 election. Bannon had some pretty incendiary rhetoric around getting in people’s faces. There was a lot of material from the Trump days that showed Trump’s movement is alive and well, and Trump himself phoned in to endorse Youngkin again.

I think the moment that kind of crystallized this event was when the organizers brought out a flag that they said was flown over, in their words, a peaceful rally on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. And the crowd pledged allegiance to this flag. That of course made some headlines the next day, and Youngkin at first kind of dodged questions around whether he endorsed that kind of action and then ultimately distanced himself from it. He said it was weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to that flag. He didn’t disavow Trump, which is something McAuliffe and the Democrats wanted to hear from him. So it kind of speaks to the position that Youngkin’s in with the Republicans broadly.

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I think part of the challenge is the Trumpier he is, the better it is for the Democrats, so they’re kind of embracing this rush to push him into the same boat as Trump. They went as far as chartering a plane over Mar-a-Lago to taunt Donald Trump over Youngkin, because Youngkin wouldn’t campaign with him. And it just seems like the trolling on both sides makes the situation intractable, where they’re not actually talking about what might matter to voters.

I completely agree, and it’s frustrating as a politics reporter to try to get through to the issues.

What do the voters say to you when you talk to them about this race? Do they roll their eyes?

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Not completely. I think especially the voters who are solidly in one camp feel like there are real policy decisions at stake, particularly around abortion, around voting rights and voting access, around education and school curriculum on the right. I do think people very strongly believe that there’s policies that will change and be affected by who’s nominated. But I think the tenor of the rhetoric is very much kind of aligned with the general national mood and the national political debate, which seems to be seeping down not just to the state but to school boards, where we’ve seen people harassed. There’s these really intense meetings about, in Virginia’s case, whether to adopt policies that protect transgender students or whether to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. So from my vantage point, those debates seem to be, if anything, saturating further down and getting more and more local.

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Before this governor’s race, Virginia was making headlines for raucous, drawn-out school board meetings, where parents were waging a battle over what they called “critical race theory.” The meetings in one district, Loudoun County, got especially contentious, and they were recorded.

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There was a big outcry there that the teachers, because they’ve gone through trainings on racial sensitivity and on fighting discrimination—I’m paraphrasing here—that critical race theory was an element in some of those trainings, and therefore that got kind of exploded into this idea that critical race theory was pervasive in schools and that students, white students in particular, were being taught to hate themselves.

So how did that debate, which had been going on in the spring and a little bit in the summer, become such a big part of the governor’s race now, in the fall?

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I think it’s just because for Republicans, they see the amount of energy and anger on some of their supporters and some conservatives, and they see that as a channel to win.

Many political operatives are looking to this race to give them guidance: Will these school board fights drive voters to the polls? If so, we might be hearing a lot more about “critical race theory” in the 2022 midterm elections. But you aren’t so sure Virginia’s experience will map cleanly onto other states.

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I think partly just based on it’s kind of a vaguely swingy state, right next to D.C., and especially at this point Virginia’s demographics have changed so much, I don’t know that if McAuliffe wins—as the polling shows he’s on track to—even if narrowly, that that will give us a clear message about 2022. A lot could happen in between. The pandemic has been so unpredictable.

Virginia likes to think of itself as a microcosm for the rest of the country, but is it really? It’s such a complicated state. I don’t know that the state encapsulates the whole of the country’s political mood in one moment. There’s just so many factors that go into winning. And in this case, money’s important. Democrats have a huge cash advantage. They have resources at their ready. I think if Republicans win, then that maybe is something of an index on the national mood. But whether it’s a prediction or whether there’s some deeper message in that for the political fortunes going forward, I don’t know that that’s really the case.

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