RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) – Richard Stuart, a longtime Republican Senator in Virginia, was given three days notice this summer to put together a weekday campaign for Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governorship.
To his surprise and delight, around 200 people came from across his district, which stretches from the suburbs of Washington to more rural communities. The crowd was eager to meet Youngkin, the businessman and political freshman hoping to break a 12-year streak of bad luck for the GOP in statewide elections and deter Democratic candidate and former Governor Terry McAuliffe from a second term.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve seen more enthusiasm for a nationwide Republican candidate,” said Stuart, who has represented his district since 2008.
That kind of strong showing, combined with some new polls, is fueling optimism among Republicans, who have been largely banned from state government in recent years as one of the most competitive and expensive political matches of the year enters its final six-week period. And while the Democrats are confident they are still ahead of the game, some McAuliffe supporters are nervous.
“This election seems closer than we’d like it to be,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, an influential group that spends almost entirely on supporting the Democrats and has backed McAuliffe. “Republicans have a motivational advantage, an enthusiasm advantage.”
McAuliffe, who was in office from 2014 to 2018 and ran away with the Democratic primary in June, has generally led in public polls, but recent polls suggest the race may have intensified. A poll conducted this month by the Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University showed that McAuliffe supports 50% of the likely voters versus Youngkins 47%, within the margin of error.
To prevail, Youngkin must overcome several weaknesses in this increasingly temperate state. As the US Supreme Court ponders the future of abortion law, Democrats say Youngkin is too extreme on this issue. And the Democrats are doing everything they can to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who is unpopular in much of northern Virginia, where the race may be decided.
Trump may have done Youngkin a little favors this week by urging him to support his agenda.
“The only guys who win are the guys who embrace the MAGA movement,” Trump said Thursday on the John Fredericks Radio Show when speaking about Youngkin’s candidacy.
But Virginia Republicans feel good about Youngkin in part because they think he’s the candidate to prevail. The former investment manager presents himself as a down-to-earth family man, tall and polished.
In essence, he’s spent much of this year avoiding some controversial culture war themes that Republicans in other parts of the country have embraced. For example, he said little about gun control or the recent removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee in Richmond. However, he made “electoral integrity” an important part of his platform during the nomination contest and has vowed to outlaw the teaching of critical racial theory, which examines American history through the lens of racism.
In a way, his message marks a departure from other Republicans who have sought national office in recent years. In 2017, Ed Gillespie ran for the establishment candidate for governor before delving into immigration policy and the status of the Confederate statues. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by almost nine percentage points.
The following year, Corey Stewart, an immigration hardliner who defended the “Confederate legacy,” won the GOP nomination for the US Senate and was easily defeated by Democrat Tim Kaine.
Garren Shipley, a longtime GOP agent and spokesman for the GOP faction in the House of Representatives, said other Republicans voting this year are eager to campaign with Youngkin, something that moderates in swing districts don’t always do is the case.
“I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t want to be on stage with Glenn Youngkin,” he said.
The choice might depend on voters approving the way the Democrats ran Virginia.
The Democrats took full control of the state government in the 2019 elections after gaining huge numbers in 2017. Since then, they have passed countless progressive laws that were unthinkable just a few years ago, ending the death penalty, mandating renewable energy utilities and legalizing marijuana, expanding LGBTQ protection and relaxing abortion restrictions.
The challenge now is to ensure that Democrats are just as excited to vote to protect these gains as if they were sending a message to Trump.
“The significant advances we’ve made – from my point of view on climate change, climate protection – could all be lost in a heartbeat on November 2nd,” Town said.
The election is almost certainly seen as an early referendum on Joe Biden’s first year of presidency. Losing McAuliffe would send an important signal to the Democrats that their control over Congress is seriously jeopardized in next year’s midterm elections.
The Democrats were cheered by the results in California this month, where Governor Gavin Newsom easily defeated an attempt to oust him prematurely. Like Newsom, McAuliffe has tried to highlight his opponent’s ties to Trump and his opposition to pandemic precautions. In the past few days he has beaten Youngkin for rejecting vaccination and masking mandates.
“The Virginia Governor’s race is a tight race – and it always should be. Terry ran a campaign laser that focuses on the issues Virginians care about: business, education and ending this pandemic by vaccinating Virginians, ”said Christina Freundlich, a McAuliffe campaign spokeswoman.
McAuliffe’s campaign says their path to victory is to hold onto Northern Virginia and other suburbs and mobilize colored communities. Republicans must marginalize themselves outside Washington and other urban areas, including the capital, Richmond, and maintain voter turnout in rural strongholds.
“Republicans are definitely more enthusiastic, but they have fewer numbers,” said Albert Pollard, a former delegate from the Democratic House.
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the Virginians would “carry on”.
“Democrats are nervous that Terry McAuliffe is the only person looking forward to a well-known liar, failed governor and 40-year-old politician Terry McAuliffe,” she said.
Several structural factors are seen as helpful to Republicans this year, including a longstanding pattern of voters in Virginia turning against the party that controls the White House during their unusual off-year gubernatorial races. (Remarkably, McAuliffe bucked this trend with his 2013 win.)
Youngkin, the wealthy former Co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, is the largest funder of his campaign. According to the financial records of the bipartisan Virginia Public Access Project, he has already invested at least $ 17.5 million in his own campaign.
He has overtaken McAuliffe, an amazing, well-connected fundraiser, so far in spending on TV advertising, according to a state disclosure forms compiled by Kantar Media and published by VPAP, even though McAuliffe has stepped into the last two months of the campaign with a benefit in Bar on the hand.
On the ballot is a progressive activist and third party candidate, Princess Blanding, who could pull voters away from McAuliffe. And Youngkin could help a candidate who is not on the ballot: Trump.
“Glenn Youngkin has the best atmosphere a Republican could ever want,” said Democratic strategist Ben Tribbett.