A tense race for governor in Virginia is testing a new reality for Democrats and Republicans: how to run when Donald Trump is not in the White House and not on the ballot.
Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a return to the office in next month’s election, is trying to depict Republican Glenn Youngkin as the second coming of the former president, who lost Virginia by 10 percentage points last year.
“The Trump years were just terrible for Republicans in Virginia,” said J. Tucker Martin, a Richmond-based consultant who served as communications director for former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. “He blotted out the sun. He made it impossible to get anybody's message across. Every campaign in the state was just a proxy vote on how you feel about Donald Trump, which, if you're in North Dakota, is a great deal for Republicans. If you're in Virginia? Horrible deal.”
Youngkin, who has Trump’s endorsement and shares many of the former president’s conservative views on policy but has little else in common with him tonally or stylistically, presents himself as uniquely capable of uniting Trump enthusiasts and haters.
“Glenn just benefits from there suddenly being oxygen again,” Martin said. “He can be himself. He can speak to voters. They’re listening.”
The results of the Nov. 2 election will be instructive for the 2022 midterm campaigns.
Virginia gubernatorial elections fall the year after presidential elections, inviting interpretation as both a referendum on the party in power and a harbinger of what's to come. Polls this year show a close race, with McAuliffe's efforts to tightly yoke Youngkin to Trump so far failing to dent Republican enthusiasm.
“I think there is a sense among some that we beat Trump, mission accomplished, and it lessens the obvious urgency and existential threat,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist who was McAuliffe’s press secretary during his first successful run for governor. “Which is something that we have to overcome.”
At their final debate this week, both candidates stuck to their strategies.
McAuliffe twice called Youngkin, a former CEO of the private equity giant Carlyle Group, a Trump “wannabe.” He noted that his rival had made “election integrity” — a phrase Republicans often use to appeal to those who strongly but falsely believe the last election was stolen from Trump — a top priority during the GOP primary.
“He wants to bring Trump-style politics to Virginia,” McAuliffe said, “and we’re not going to allow it.”
Youngkin offered a relatively tepid response when moderator Chuck Todd of NBC News asked if he would back Trump for president in 2024, saying only that he would support Trump if he’s the GOP nominee. Youngkin also mocked McAuliffe’s fixation on Trump, observing halfway through the hourlong debate that he had already mentioned the former president’s name more than 10 times.
“The only person invoking Trump,” Youngkin charged, “is you.”
Youngkin has kept Trump at arm’s length since winning the Republican nomination, accepting his endorsement but showing little interest in rallying alongside him. He’s kept his focus on local issues, such as his plan to eliminate Virginia’s grocery tax, rather than wade into hyperpartisan fights that have energized Trump’s base and nationalized other state and local races.
McAuliffe, meanwhile, could be dealing with political headwinds from President Joe Biden, whose approval numbers have dropped amid a prolonged pandemic and a chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
"Terry McAuliffe is losing, and his last-ditch effort to make this race about anything but Glenn Youngkin vs. Terry McAuliffe is desperate and isn't working,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said.
Youngkin’s Republican allies say he has adeptly managed his coalition, keeping “Never Trump” and “Forever Trump” Republicans in the same GOP tent. But for Democrats, who argue Youngkin still strikes Trumpy chords when speaking to conservatives, it’s a sign of duplicity.
“It's not like he's suddenly turned into Larry Hogan,” said Schwerin, referring to the Republican governor of neighboring Maryland, who has been an outspoken Trump critic. “As Terry said on the debate stage, he's saying one thing to one crowd and another to another crowd and hoping he can get away with it.”
The Virginia dynamic is similar to the one that played out in the lead up to last month’s recall election in California. There, Democrats raised alarm bells that, even though they vastly outnumbered Republicans in the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom could lose if his party’s voters didn’t bother turning out.
In that race, Newsom was aided by the emergence of Republican candidate Larry Elder, a firebrand talk radio host, who was a perfect foil to animate the liberal base. Youngkin, however, is not so eager to play that part.
“Of course you want your opponent to seem like a mini-Trump,” Martin said. “The problem they have is that Glenn Youngkin is not Donald Trump. He doesn't come across as Donald Trump. He doesn't act like Donald Trump. It just doesn't add up.”
Democrats, though, have made a meal out of every morsel they can find.
After an Axios story last weekend paraphrased Youngkin as saying Biden’s victory over Trump was legitimate but declining to say if he would have voted to certify the election results as a member of Congress, McAuliffe aides and allies treated it as a major scandal.
The story in itself illustrated Youngkin’s playing-both-sides strategy. The next day, he clarified in an interview with WTKR Channel 3 in Norfolk that he would have voted to certify the 2020 election.
Democrats seized on another moment when Youngkin spoke imprecisely. After he said during the recent debate that traditional vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella “can be mandatory” — even though he opposes mandates for the Covid-19 vaccine — Democrats cast it as a refusal to support the long-running requirement for schoolchildren to receive those other inoculations.
“We cannot allow Glenn and his right wing, anti-Covid safety agenda anywhere near the governorship,” Gov. Ralph Northam, the term-limited outgoing Democrat, said on a call with reporters organized by the state Democratic Party.
Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election in Virginia since McDonnell was elected 12 years ago, are eager to see a race play out without Trump looming large and driving Democratic turnout through the roof.
“I think in some ways Virginians have political fatigue,” said Taikein Cooper, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Prince Edward County, which appears on election maps as an island of blue amidst the sea of red in the rural center of the state. “We were winning elections in Virginia long before Donald Trump was a candidate for office, so we have to do some of the things that we were doing before.”
Two polls this week, from Monmouth University and Roanoke College, showed McAuliffe leading Youngkin, but within the margins of error. Both polls also showed Republicans with an enthusiasm advantage. In Monmouth’s survey of registered voters, Youngkin led McAuliffe, 57 percent to 40 percent, among those who described themselves as more enthusiastic about this election than previous races for governor. In Roanoke’s survey of likely voters, 43 percent of Republicans said they were extremely enthusiastic, compared to 35 percent of Democrats.
Nick Everhart, a national GOP media consultant, said Youngkin has executed an “incredibly difficult, zero-sum high wire act” by appealing to the highly educated and independent suburban voters whose support is critical in Democratic-leaning states.
“Whether he’s ahead or not,” Everhart said, “Youngkin seems to have positioned himself in the context of a worsening national Democrat political environment to make it across the canyon.”
Martin, the former McDonnell veteran, cautioned against overconfidence.
“It's still a home game for the Democrats and an away game for the Republicans,” he said. “That's just the truth of what Virginia is right now.”