Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Democrats Settle on Their Closing Strategy in Virginia Governor’s Race

Attack Trumpism, dance awkwardly, and use star power.
by Jim Swift
October 22, 2021
Democrats Settle on Their Closing Strategy in Virginia Governor’s Race
DUMFRIES, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 21: Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) is joined by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (center) and candidate for Lt. Governor Hala Ayala at a campaign event on October 21, 2021 in Dumfries, Virginia. The Virginia gubernatorial election, pitting McAuliffe against Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, is November 2. (Photo by Win McNamee / Getty)

Dumfries, Virginia
In the back lot of a former Prince William County fire station, now owned by the Dumfries-Triangle Rescue Squad, Inc., the sun beats down on fifty journalists wishing for some shade. Most of us got here an hour or more early for Terry McAuliffe’s campaign event, since we know security is likely to be relatively tight. McAuliffe doesn’t normally have the protection of the United States Secret Service, but tonight he does, since he’s campaigning with the vice president of the United States.

Dumfries, one of Virginia’s oldest towns, was a bustling port city in the eighteenth century. Now it’s a commuter town with a population of almost 6,000 and home to a few tired shopping centers and an off-track betting racino.

It’s unclear at first why this venue was picked for Thursday night’s McAuliffe rally. The building is not in active use, and it doesn’t exactly present a pretty picture: Its windows are boarded up, and security cameras, once protecting the station, now dangle limply from their cords.

(Photo by Jim Swift)

Up above, on the roof, Secret Service snipers have their eyes on the gathering crowd. There are no tall buildings that overlook the site and pose a threat—just the neighboring Port-O-Dumfries townhouse community—but a cadre of local kids sneaks through the woods and into the press area before being shooed away by Secret Service. As at any event for a major campaign in its final weeks, there are press risers, and generators powering Skyjacks with spotlights for when the sun goes down and the main speakers go on.

Even if it isn’t clear at first why this particular spot was picked, it’s pretty obvious why the McAuliffe campaign chose to have its event with Harris in Prince William County. It’s a county that has changed along with Virginia: from red—Prince William was once a Republican stronghold—to blue. It’s also the most diverse county in Virginia, and Democrats hope that Vice President Harris will bring out African American voters who helped propel Biden to victory on Super Tuesday in Virginia last year.

With the political star power so nearby—Dumfries is just half an hour south of Washington—it makes sense to use it under any circumstances, but Terry McAuliffe is using it because he needs all the help he can get. For most of the campaign he had a solid lead over his opponent, Glenn Youngkin, but the latest polls have them tied. Since McAuliffe’s campaign has largely focused on linking Youngkin to Trump, it makes sense to gin up the Democratic base in the left-leaning Northern Virginia suburbs.

Youngkin, as Amanda Carpenter noted yesterday, is making a hard appeal to suburban voters about school issues, including mask mandates, vaccine mandates, and school closures. The latter issue is pretty much moot here in Prince William, since “all of our school locations are offering in-person learning,” the local school district tells me. Still, the subtle campaign issue is that Youngkin won’t close schools next year if COVID is bad, but McAuliffe might.

Even though I came a couple of hours early, a small pack of Republican protesters had already set up a little forward operating base by the time I arrived. In a neighboring parking lot, somebody parked a pickup truck with a big FUCK BIDEN flag affixed to the side. A man with a #FJB hat (I bet you can solve the riddle) waved a BIDEN SUCKS flag next to a 15-foot-high flag—TRUMP WON, SAVE AMERICA—flopping from a utility pole. One man babbles into a megaphone, while another dons a sign that says “VISIT THE BOARDER, NOT TERRY”:

(Photo by Jim Swift)

As I walk by, one of the women is eager to start a “Let’s Go Brandon” chant among the half dozen of them.

As rallygoers file in to the sound of pop music blasting from big speakers, it becomes clearer why this location was chosen for the event. Prince William County boasts many bigger, nicer, venues, but from an optics standpoint for all the local and national TV outlets here, this place looks packed even though the crowd isn’t huge.

The event doesn’t start all that strongly. A local party organizer opens to a tepid response. Next, Luke Torian, the local member of the House of Delegates, warms up the crowd a little more effectively. Attorney General Mark Herring comes out and does a serviceable job of defending his record, but unlike red-meat lawyer politicians, his remarks come across as a little technical and the crowd’s responses are just perfunctory. They’re not eating it up.

Ramping things up a bit was Hala Ayala, another delegate from Prince William County and the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor. So much of the news coverage has focused solely on McAuliffe and Youngkin that it’s refreshing to hear from Ayala. Her Republican opponent, Winsome Sears, is a former Marine whose campaign signs depict her holding a rifle.

As Ayala starts her remarks, it’s clear why the McAuliffe camp likes having her around. She’s a very good stump speaker. The crowd’s energy rises, even if there’s maybe a little too much reliance on calling the audience “brothers and sisters.” Ayala notes that, if elected, she would be the first woman of color voted into statewide office in Virginia—leaving unmentioned the fact that the same will be true if she loses and Sears wins.

Ayala doesn’t go much into her personal story here, maybe because people in these parts mostly know it: She is a single mother who relied on Medicaid to help save her son and worked in cybersecurity before getting her college degree later in life. And then, from the PTA to the statehouse to now having a chance to become the lieutenant governor.

Up next was Tim Kaine—the senator, former governor, former lieutenant governor, and Hillary Clinton running mate. Kaine was as you remember him from the 2016 campaign: sufficient. He tailored his message to the locals, calling Prince William County the “vanguard” of the Democrats’ electoral good fortune in Virginia.

Then, after a brief pause and some Billy Joel, Dorothy McAuliffe—likable but unpolished—came up to prep the crowd for her husband. Then it was Terry Time. McAuliffe’s entry theme song was “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison. (I guess it’s more appropriate as a campaign song than “Mack the Knife.”) And if there’s one thing Terry McAuliffe is known for, it’s awkward dancing and an apparent love of “Return of the Mack”:

McAuliffe delivered a stemwinder of a speech, focusing on his campaign’s main theme: “Let me be crystal clear, Glenn Youngkin is not a reasonable Republican,” suggesting his opponent was merely an acolyte of Trump, noting how many times the former president has endorsed Youngkin, and quoting him on those endorsements. McAuliffe also went into Youngkin’s bizarre focus on election integrity as a dog whistle of MAGA Trumpism.

McAuliffe encouraged listeners to check out the policy ideas listed on his website—and then briefly talked about abortion and health care—before turning to discuss education. Without explicitly acknowledging that Youngkin has gained ground on education policy, McAuliffe said he was going to “lean in on education,” criticizing Youngkin’s views on masking and vaccine mandates. He promised to raise teacher pay (as he succeeded in doing when he was governor last time). He painted a grim picture of Virginia under Youngkin next year, with young kids in schools with unvaccinated, unmasked teachers, rattling off a series of statistics about COVID deaths, hospitalizations, and how COVID has impacted children in Virginia.

Before relinquishing the microphone so Vice President Harris could speak, McAuliffe dropped some bait for the locals: Joe Biden will be campaigning for McAuliffe in Arlington next week, President Obama will be helping out too, and there will be concerts with Dave Matthews Band and Pharrell Williams.

Because it is Terry McAuliffe, there was more awkward dancing as Vice President Harris came out, and then he sat back on a stool as Harris was serenaded with “Happy Birthday,” having turned 57 the day before.

“This race is tight, and we’ve got to make it clear, we’re not taking anything for granted,” Harris warned the crowd.

Before she got far into her remarks, though, a protester in the crowd tried to shout and hold up for the cameras a folded sign about foreign policy. After campaign staff and Secret Service agents escorted out that protester, a handful of others seized the opportunity to raise signs and shout inaudible things about stopping Line 3, an obscure years-long protest about a Minnesota oil pipeline. Harris, a bit flustered, laughed and said that she loves Democratic—or perhaps she meant lowercase-d democratic—politics, and the crowd started trying to out-chant the handful of protesters with “Terry!” As the still-shouting protesters were noisily escorted out, Harris raised her amplified voice to an ear-piercing level: “Let’s focus on why we’re here right now.” I felt sorry for the neighbors in the nearby townhouses.

Once things quieted down, Harris talked about some of the Democrats’ national priorities but without saying anything about the political reality: that the Democratic agenda has ground to a halt thanks to infighting. That sort of thing doesn’t do well on the stump, especially when you don’t know your audience’s views on it.

Harris closed with remarks about the late John Lewis and his famous line about “good trouble,” telling rallygoers that she knows that McAuliffe is the sort of guy who recognizes “good trouble” and “what is worth a good fight.”

And with that, the event is over. The rest of the Democratic slate comes back out onto the dais and, you guessed it: more awkward dancing.

The crowd files out into the beautiful night. The GOP FOB now has Youngkin signs surrounding it, warning McAuliffe’s rallygoers that voting for Democrats is voting for communism. The man with the megaphone is still there. A passerby engages him in debate but the exchange immediately becomes as profane as some of the flags. A truck with video ads for McAuliffe drives around on this side street where the rally was; it sure seems like a waste of somebody’s money.

(Photo by Jim Swift)

Then again, given McAuliffe’s fundraising advantage over Youngkin, the Democrats apparently have plenty of money to spend on such things.

Virginians have less than two weeks of this to go—less than two weeks of the rallies and news reports and nonstop ads. Despite the apparently tied polls, McAuliffe could grab back the lead, and the big final campaign push could help with that. Or Youngkin could have real momentum, and, perhaps with the support of “shy” GOP voters not showing up in surveys, he could walk away with a sizable win.

What, though, will happen if McAuliffe wins—but by just a razor-thin margin? Youngkin has spent his campaign playing footsie with election truthers. Would he concede defeat? Or would he follow the example that the Republican party seems to prefer—the example of Trump?

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.