McLEAN, Va. — Virginia’s gubernatorial race will test which politician’s legacy has left a more lasting impact on the commonwealth: Donald Trump or Terry McAuliffe.
Even before McAuliffe’s blowout primary victory on Tuesday, Virginia Democrats were eagerly casting GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive, as an avatar of the former president. During McAuliffe’s Tuesday night victory party, he said that the two are aligned on key issues, adding that Youngkin is “not a reasonable Republican.” Cries of “Trumpkin” broke out from some in the crowd.
But Youngkin — who has downplayed his endorsement from Trump since it came the day after he won a contentious nominating contest in May — has instead argued that it is McAuliffe’s legacy that is on trial. The Republican is campaigning as an outsider who is the last bulwark against a dynastic former governor and he’s circulating internal polling that shows the two start the general election in a neck-and-neck race.
“The Democrats will try to bring up Trump,” said George Allen, the former Republican governor and senator. “But I don’t think that’s going to be the issue in this campaign.”
These are the battle lines for the first competitive statewide election of Joe Biden’s presidency: Democrats are eager to nationalize the race, with Trump still injecting himself into the country’s political scene, while Republicans are trying to refocus the contest on state and local issues.
But McAuliffe’s comeback bid is also grounded in voters’ positive feelings about his tenure — he touted his achievements, along with those of his Democratic successor, in his victory speech Tuesday — along with a bet that Biden’s early popularity will propel Democrats here, a year after he carried Virginia by 10 points.
Meanwhile, Trump’s tenure in the White House was a disaster for the Virginia GOP. Ralph Northam, the outgoing governor, cruised by Republican Ed Gillespie in the 2017 gubernatorial contest, part of four years of Democratic victories up and down the ballot.
Conservatives argue that this year will be different: With Trump off the ballot and Republicans out of power in both Richmond and Washington, they say voters are ready for a change. And the GOP is eager to prove the Trump-era drag in the nation’s suburbs — which has tanked the party’s prospects in states with Virginia’s demographic profile — is reversible. Internal polling from the Youngkin campaign, taken last week before the Democratic primary and shared first with POLITICO, has him trailing McAuliffe within the poll’s margin of error in a head-to-head matchup, 48 percent to 46 percent.
McAuliffe, however, has not shied away from his previous tenure in office, along with the four years of Northam’s administration. The McAuliffe camp’s first general election digital ad highlights his economic record while continuing to yoke Trump to Youngkin.
“I think it is necessary for us to highlight that Gov. McAuliffe and Gov. Northam, over the last eight years, have produced one of the most progressive tenures in Virginia government that we’ve ever seen,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a co-chair of McAuliffe’s campaign, said. “Don’t be surprised that we highlight that, however, this election is about the future.”
The campaign is also betting that Biden’s popularity in the state will lift all Democratic boats.
“Having President Biden in the White House is an asset,” Stoney continued. “President Biden has been the individual who has righted the ship, got shots in arms, and is working on our recovery, investing in our infrastructure … and I think that is a perfect record to run on in November.”
McAuliffe told CNN Tuesday night that he spoke to Biden shortly after he was declared the victor, and that the president said he was “all in” on helping his campaign.
Aides to McAuliffe argue that his sweeping primary win — capturing 62 percent of the vote in a five-way race — shows he can replicate the same coalition of voters that propelled Biden last year, while trying to goad Trump to get more involved in the race. McAuliffe said in an MSNBC interview on Wednesday that he didn’t think Trump “has the courage” to come to the state and campaign for Youngkin.
After jitters earlier on primary day about voter turnout, Democrats largely breathed a sigh of relief when all the ballots were counted. As of late Tuesday, 488,000 votes had been tallied in the gubernatorial primary — down from the 2017 primary, but still amounting close to 90 percent of the turnout in a supercharged faceoff between Northam and the more progressive former Rep. Tom Perriello.
But there’s still concern among some on the left that political exhaustion could dim turnout in November, making the race a more difficult win for McAuliffe.
“Virginia is a deeply blue state when Donald Trump is president,” said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “I’m not sure we’re anything other than a purple state when he’s not.”
Because of that uncertainty, Virginians across the political spectrum are expecting the race to attract a historic amount of money, both because of the individual candidates and the fact it is the most competitive statewide election this year. McAuliffe is widely known as a prodigious fundraiser, and Youngkin brings enormous personal wealth to the race, having already poured $12 million of his own money into his campaign.
“It will definitely be the most expensive gubernatorial race in Virginia history,” state Republican Party chair Rich Anderson said, adding that he is expecting a lot of outside groups to get involved as well.
Democrats, meanwhile, are coalescing behind the all-establishment ticket across the spectrum. Both former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who combined for a little over 30 percent of the vote on Tuesday, committed to supporting McAuliffe’s general election bid in their post-election statements.
While McAuliffe made education and recovery from Covid-19 core campaign issues, progressives are calling for him to move further left on health care and organized labor laws in his platform. Virginia’s state legislature has already passed a number of progressive policies since Democrats flipped the statehouse in 2019, including Medicaid expansion and enacting of its own version of the Voting Rights Act to increase access to the ballot.
Keeping these policies in place, however, will be contingent upon whether Democrats maintain control in Richmond. The battle over the state House of Delegates is expected to be intense after the chamber flipped two years ago. An added wrinkle: The election is being held on last decade’s map lines, after the lengthy delay in the release of redistricting data, opening up the possibility that there could be three consecutive years of legislative elections.
The gains Democrats made over the last few years are “hanging on Terry’s shoulders,” said Nick Rathod, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist.
“He’s going to have to remind [progressive voters] of what’s hanging in the balance.”
Youngkin is also trying to cleave progressives away from McAuliffe. One of the two ads he launched immediately following McAuliffe’s primary victory was one that extensively featured Carroll Foy’s criticism of the former governor throughout the primary, opening with the former delegate saying McAuliffe is “not inspiring” and failed the state.
Carroll Foy also warned that Democrats needed more than an anti-Trump message to win the state. “I think that it is fair, because Trump has endorsed Glenn Youngkin,” she said in an interview at a polling place in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, before the ballots were counted. “But I think to lead with that narrative is a mistake. … Attack tactics alone just won’t cut it. We have to let people know what our positive vision is for Virginia.”