October 12, 2021

Democrats are worried. They are worried about the President’s plunging approval ratings; they are worried about their stalled legislative agenda; they are worried about the public reaction to the withdrawal from Afghanistan; about the pandemic; the economy; inflation; the southern border. And they are also worried about Virginia.

Old Dominion has been getting steadily bluer for years. It’s been twelve years since a Republican has won a state-wide race here. Joe Biden romped home by ten points last November while Trump’s 44% vote share in 2020 was the worst performance by a Republican presidential candidate in the state since 1968. Virginia was starting to look like it might be out of the Republican Party’s reach. And that is what makes its upcoming off-cycle gubernatorial election such a perilous electoral test: an upset loss next month would be taken as an ominous sign of things to come. It would bring back memories of 2009, when a Republican win in Virginia brought Democrats down to earth with a thud after Obama’s election and presaged carnage in the following year’s midterms.

This year’s bad-blooded, expensive, fiercely fought contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin has all the hallmarks of a tight race: polls give McAuliffe a lead in the low single digits. Virginians are faced with two candidates cut from the same cloth. Both are members of the Washington elite. Both are residents of large suburban mansions in up-market McLean, just across the Potomac from DC.

In many ways, McAuliffe seems closer to a parody of a Democratic insider than the real thing. He first made a name for himself in the famously salubrious world of Clinton fundraising. In 1996, he drummed up $275 million for the Clintons. In 1999, the New York Times described him as Bill’s “closest and most loyal Washington friend”. Al Gore has described him as “the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe”.

McAuliffe, now worth tens of millions of dollars, wasn’t shy about what was in it for him. In an interview for that Times article, he boasted that “I met all of my business contacts through politics” and said that there was “no question” that his business associates dealt with him in part because of his close ties to the President.

Once he was safely ensconced in Washington’s self-enriching, self-regarding and self-sustaining network of political professionals, a status confirmed by a stint as chair of the Democratic National Committee, McAuliffe sought elected office. After a failed run for Virginia Governor in 2009, he succeeded in 2013. Virginia prohibits consecutive terms for its Governor. Hence McAuliffe’s four-year break before this year’s run.

The once and future Governor looked exactly as at home as you would expect on a recent weekend campaign stop in Fairfax County, northern Virginia, a wealthy part of the state McAuliffe must have squeezed tens of millions out of in campaign contributions over the years. These DC suburbs have turned from red to blue and are supposed to form a bulwark against the Republicans, who fare much better in the State’s rural south and west.

As McAuliffe’s party has gone upmarket socioeconomically, it has shifted leftwards ideologically. In a garden full of khaki-clad suburbanites who all seem to know him as “Terry”, the crowd dutifully outdoor masking on a sunny early-autumn afternoon, McAuliffe nodded along as a warm-up speaker explains that “climate change is a women’s rights issue”.

But that leftwards drift is proving a problem on the ground in Virginia. One member of the crowd, Deetzie Bayliss, is running as a Virginia House of Delegates in a heavily Republican area. She tells me that the “D” next to her name is a turn-off for too many independents. “You seem like you’d do a good job,” she says one voter told her recently, “but I see that letter and I think of Nancy Pelosi, so I’m afraid I can’t vote for you”.

When it is McAuliffe’s turn to speak, he trots out his accomplishments in his first term as Governor but is at his most enthusiastic when he reminds the audience that his opponent belongs to the same party as Donald Trump.

“You all know I am running against a Trump wannabe,” said McAuliffe, to polite boos, before painting a dystopian picture of Virginia under Republican rule. McAuliffe likes to refer to his opponent as Glenn Trumpkin and whenever they meet to debate, accuses him of being a “mini-Trump”.

In both demeanour and platform, however, Glenn Youngkin is a far cry from the former President. He is softly spoken where Trump is brash, and seems determined to avoid controversy rather than seek it out like a homing missile. Youngkin does describe himself as an outsider; he declares in his Twitter bio that he is “not a politician”. But while it is true that he has never held elected office before, the claim nonetheless stretches credulity.

Until recently, Youngkin was the CEO of The Carlyle Group. He spent 25 years at the DC-based private equity firm, and has the nine-digit net worth and fleece vest collection to prove it. His attacks on “Washington” are more than a little undermined by his ascent to the top of the business world in the city that shares its name with that term of abuse. Like his opponent, then, he is a throwback to a previous era in his party’s development — in his case, a more buttoned-up, establishment brand of conservatism (albeit with an added sprinkling of populism).

If McAuliffe’s challenge is to defy the President’s plummeting ratings and gin up the Democratic coalition with it-could-happen-here alarmism about the consequences of a GOP win, Youngkin’s task is equally tricky: he must somehow keep happy diehard Trumpists and win over enough moderate suburbanites turned off by the party’s rightwards turn but still concerned by the Democrats’ increasingly assertive progressivism.

That may sound impossible, but several developments have suddenly made it seem feasible. The most important is the growing disenchantment towards Biden felt by many Democrats and independents. No wonder McAuliffe has publicly despaired at the possibility that his party might fail to pass their infrastructure package or their Build Back Better legislation before election day on November 2.

Education has also loomed large in the race, offering Youngkin a policy area where rural conservatives and moderates in the suburbs might be able to find common cause. Thanks in part to over-mighty teaching unions, Northern Virginia’s schools were slow to reopen during the pandemic, with some only recently returning to full-time in-person instruction. Virginia has also been a flashpoint for the fight over how history and racism are taught in America’s classrooms, with bitter fights at school board meetings in Loudoun County making national headlines. Youngkin has promised to ban critical race theory in classrooms if he is elected. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” said McAuliffe in a disastrously blunt moment recently. Needless to say, it has featured heavily in Youngkin television ads ever since.

But even with these tailwinds, Youngkin must still keep together a bitterly divided Republican family if he is to even contemplate victory in a state that leans Democrat. Signs of the tensions in that coalition were on display at a debate watch party in Northern Virginia earlier this month. The crowd of Youngkin fans who piled into an Alexandria sports bar were a mix of boomer suburbanites and younger, more raucous and more MAGA-friendly clusters.

In one exchange over vaccine mandates, McAuliffe accused Youngkin of siding with the anti-vaxxers. A corner of the room whooped in approval at the idea: “Hell yeah!” Others seemed a lot less impressed, indignant about the accusation and perplexed by the evidently unvaccinated guests. Later in the evening, a chant of “America First” broke out to the bemusement of the more sedate members of the crowd. “He’s nothing like Trump,” mutters one such supporter to me at another moment, shaking her head at the screen when McAuliffe trots out his well-rehearsed mini-Trump accusation.

Indeed, Youngkin’s balancing act has not always been a pretty sight, especially when it comes to dancing around Trump’s stolen-election crankery. During the primary, he did his best to dodge direct questions about whether Biden was the legitimately elected president, instead making much of his plans for “election integrity”, an unconvincing fudge and a euphemistic nod to Trumpian conspiracy theories. Once he had seen off his Republican rivals, he was suddenly a lot clearer about last year’s result, though even recently equivocated about whether he would have voted to certify the election results were he in Congress. He later confirmed that he would.

Perhaps that is why while Trump has endorsed Youngkin, the two have notably not appeared side by side on the campaign trail. Biden, meanwhile, hit the campaign trail back in July, before his presidency entered the rocky patch from which it is yet to emerge. McAuliffe, however, appears to be in no hurry to invite him back.

Neither Biden nor Trump are currently in Virginia — but the election has nonetheless devolved into a referendum on the most prominent Democrat and Republican in the country. Democrats are hoping that the excess of a former President is enough to distract from the shortcomings of his successor. But, as this close race suggests, they cannot rely on their favourite bogeyman forever.