“The Democrats will try to bring Trump forward,” said George Allen, the former Republican governor and senator. “But I don’t think that’s going to be the problem 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 stage as Republicans try to refocus competition on state and local issues.
But McAuliffe’s comeback bid is also based on voters’ positive feelings about his tenure — he praised his performance, along with that of his Democratic successor, in his victory speech Tuesday — along with a bet that Biden’s early popularity will Democrats here will propel a year. after carrying Virginia by 10 points.
Meanwhile, Trump’s term in the White House was a disaster for the Virginia GOP. Ralph Northam, the outgoing governor, crossed Republican Ed Gillespie in the 2017 governor race, part of four years of Democratic victories up and down in the vote.
Conservatives argue this year will be different: With Trump on the ballot and Republicans out of power in both Richmond and Washington, they say voters are ready for change. And the GOP is eager to prove that the Trump-era drag in the nation’s suburbs — which has hampered the party’s prospects in states with Virginia’s demographic profile — is reversible. Internal Poll of the Youngkin Campaign, taken last week before the Democratic primary and shared first with POLITICO, has him follow McAuliffe within the poll’s margin of error in a head-to-head matchup, 48 percent to 46 percent.
However, McAuliffe did not shy away from his previous term in office, along with Northam’s four-year reign. McAuliffe’s Camp first digital ad for general elections emphasizes his economic track record as he continues to yoke Trump to Youngkin.
“I think it is necessary for us to emphasize that Gov. McAuliffe and Gov. Northam have produced some of the most progressive terms in the Virginia government that we have ever seen over the past eight years,” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a spokesperson for the U.S.A. co-chair of McAuliffe’s campaign, said. “Don’t be surprised that we emphasize that this election is about the future, however.”
The campaign also bets 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 person who has straightened the ship, fired guns, and is working on our recovery, investing in our infrastructure…and I think that’s a perfect record to build on in November.”
McAuliffe told CNN Tuesday night that he was speaking to Biden shortly after he was declared victorious, and that the president said he was “all in” to help his campaign.
McAuliffe’s assistants claim his overwhelming primary win — taking 62 percent of the vote in a five-fold race — shows he can replicate the same coalition of voters that propelled Biden last year as he tried to push Trump to get more involved in the race . McAuliffe said in an MSNBC interview on Wednesday that he did not think Trump “has the courage” to come to the state and campaign for Youngkin.
After the jitters about voter turnout earlier on day one, Democrats largely breathed a sigh of relief when all the ballots were counted. By the end of Tuesday, 488,000 votes had been tallied in the gubernatorial primary — a drop from the 2017 primary, but still accounting for nearly 90 percent of the turnout in a supercharged showdown between Northam and the more progressive former Rep. Tom Perriello.
But there is still concern among some on the left that political exhaustion could reduce turnout in November, making the race a more difficult win for McAuliffe.
“Virginia is a deep blue state when Donald Trump is president,” said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “I’m not sure we’re anything but a purple state if he isn’t.”
Because of that uncertainty, Virginians across the political spectrum expect the race to yield a historic figure, both from the individual candidates and from the fact that it’s the most competitive election statewide this year. McAuliffe is widely known as a prodigious fundraiser, and Youngkin is bringing enormous personal wealth into the race, having already poured $12 million of his own money into his campaign.
“It will certainly be the most expensive gubernatorial race in Virginia history,” Republican Party chairman Rich Anderson said, adding that he expects many outside groups to join in as well.
Democrats, meanwhile, are uniting behind the all-establishment ticket across the spectrum. Both the former state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy as state senator Jennifer McClellan, who together held just over 30 percent of the vote on Tuesday, pledged to support McAuliffe’s general election bid in their post-election statements.
As McAuliffe made education and recovery the key campaign issues of Covid-19, progressives are calling on 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 state house in 2019, including expanding Medicaid and enacting its own version of the Voting Rights Act to increase access to the vote.
However, maintaining this policy will depend on whether the Democrats retain control in Richmond. The battle for the state House of Representatives is expected to be intense after the chamber flipped two years ago. An additional wrinkle: Elections are being held on the map lines of the past decade, following the long delay in the release of reclassification data, raising the possibility that there could be three consecutive years of legislative elections.
The gains Democrats have made in recent years “hang on Terry’s shoulders,” said Nick Rathod, a Democratic strategist from Virginia.
“He will have to remind” [progressive voters] of what is at stake.”
Youngkin is also trying to split progressives away from McAuliffe. One of the two ads he launched immediately after McAuliffe’s primary win was one in which Carroll Foy’s criticism of the former governor was discussed at length during the primary, with the former deputy saying McAuliffe is “uninspiring” and let the state down.
Carroll Foy also warned that Democrats needed more than an anti-Trump message to win the state. “I think it’s fair because Trump has supported Glenn Youngkin,” she said in an interview at a polling station in Northern Virginia on Tuesday, before the votes were counted. “But I think it’s a mistake to lead with that story. … Attack tactics alone won’t make it. We need to let people know about our positive vision for Virginia.”