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Why Is the Virginia Governor’s Race So Close?

McAuliffe is running against Trump. Youngkin is running on education.
October 21, 2021
Why Is the Virginia Governor’s Race So Close?
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (R) answers questions from reporters while campaigning for a second term during an event at the Port City Brewing Company with Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison August 12, 2021 in Alexandria, Virginia. McAuliffe and Harrison launched the DNC’s “Build Back Better” Bus Tour during the event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The first thing to understand about the Virginia governor’s race is that when Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic former governor running again this cycle, defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli in 2013, it was by 2.5 points.

This time around, McAullife is facing a far more agile opponent.

The Democrats bet they could turn Youngkin into a Trumpkin, but Youngkin managed to keep the Trump stink off his name and make the race about something else entirely: education. That’s left McAuliffe and the Democratic Party of Virginia, who apparently think it’s a brilliant idea to troll Youngkin supporters with a giant chicken balloon that looks like Trump, fumbling for a strategy.

In the final stretch of his campaign, Youngkin is capitalizing on a bubbling hot witches’ brew of grievances about the state’s schools: resentment over COVID shutdowns, masking and vaccine mandates, critical race theory, transgender issues, and accusations of sexual assault being swept under the rug by administrators. His platform is firmly within the right wing of the GOP but comes off more like a carousel of segments that cycle on Fox News from morning until night than the projectile stream of threats and insults from Trump’s mouth. Education is Youngkin’s culture issue of choice and he’s serving up the kind of stuff that might make Republicans who couldn’t stomach Trump feel comfortable getting back into the hot tub of partisan politics again with all their old friends.

McAuliffe, for his part, is practically shoving them into the water together.

During the second of the two gubernatorial debates, on September 28, Youngkin complained about sexually explicit material available in libraries. He was talking specifically about books, but clearly tapping into the broader anger about school-related topics. McAuliffe called him “clueless” and then dropped a line that has since appeared in attack ads all over the Old Dominion:

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

At those words, the likes of Steve Bannon surely rejoiced. After the debate, McAuliffe at first stuck to his position in several interviews before backtracking later and saying he was being “taken out of context.” The Youngkin campaign pounded him both for the remarks and for his attempt to walk them back.

If McAuliffe loses the race, that soundbite could be the reason why. Up to that point, McAuliffe had maintained a lead in nearly all the polls. After that debate, though? The polls tightened, with two of the most recent polls—a survey of likely voters conducted last week by the GOP-friendly Trafalgar Group and a survey of registered voters conducted over the weekend by Monmouth University—showing McAuliffe and Youngkin tied.

Youngkin continues to press the schools issue. He held a rally in Burke on Tuesday and began by recounting the story of a sexual assault cover-up in nearby Loudoun County that he tied directly to McAuliffe:

The blame for these wrongs and the present chaos in our schools lay squarely, squarely, at the feet of 40-year politician Terry McAuliffe. It just does. Square at Terry McAuliffe’s feet—but also George Soros-backed allies. These allies that are in the left, liberal progressive movement, they’ve inserted political operatives into our school system, disguised as school boards, they shut parents out, and concealed the truth.

To promote safety, Youngkin promised to require all schools to have school resource officers on campus, to conduct regular safety audits with local law enforcement, to launch an investigation into the Loudoun County school board, and to enact a new requirement for schools to report crimes to local law enforcement. He also vowed to name a new state education secretary who would oversee a task force “comprised of teachers, administrators, law enforcement, students and parents” to weigh in on curriculum and make it available to any parent who requests it.

Team McAuliffe’s response? “Glenn Youngkin’s entire campaign has been based on Donald Trump’s divisive conspiracy theories, and tonight we saw more of the same—angry Trumpian conspiracy theories and constant threats against public school funding.”

Whether Youngkin’s attack is fair—whether it is right to blame McAuliffe for the school issues that people are angry about—is not the point. The charge, which comes with a bevy of policy proposals, warrants something more substantial than another chant about Trump.

Given that McAuliffe has already won statewide in an off-year election when his party controls the White House—usually a precursor for defeat—he’s still, on paper anyway, the favorite in this race.

If you had to pick who McAuliffe seems more like regarding recent Virginia gubernatorial candidates, however, you wouldn’t slot him as the natural heir to current Democratic Governor Ralph Northam. McAuliffe is a former Clinton hand and Democratic National Committee chairman, and he is widely recognized as a longtime party insider and operator. In a sense, his profile resembles that of Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman . . . who lost his bid for governor to Northam in 2017 by nearly nine points.

The notion of tying Youngkin to the unpopular former president—Trump lost to Biden by ten points in Virginia—isn’t a dumb one per se. But it seems to be a generic template straight out of national party headquarters, which any Republican campaign staffer worth her salt could anticipate. Accordingly, Youngkin made some of the sorts of moves that would be obvious in the not-so-long-ago era before Trump when candidates regularly distanced themselves from political losers.

Youngkin’s relationship with Trump and the broader MAGA movement has been, as Jim Swift has written, a balancing act. For example, Youngkin has accepted Trump’s endorsement and appeared on former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka’s “America First” podcast. But when Trump called into a Richmond rally on his behalf, Youngkin wasn’t there. When asked if he would like Trump to campaign for him, Youngkin dodged. “The person that is going to be campaigning here for the next two-and-a-half weeks is Glenn Youngkin,” he said. “I’m on the ballot.”

Win or lose, Youngkin is mapping out a possible playbook for Republicans who hope to run without making Trump the star player of their campaign. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Youngkin has worked carefully not to come off too Trumpy, definitely not anti-Trump, but just Trumpy enough to put the Republican coalition back together again.

For his part, Trump, likely hoping to see some Republican wins on the board before he formally begins 2024 plans, seems to be fine for now with Youngkin’s lukewarm MAGAism. And why wouldn’t he be? Their relationship is ambiguous enough so that, if Youngkin wins, Trump can claim credit, and if Youngkin loses, Trump can say it was because Youngkin distanced himself too much from Trump.

As for President Biden and the Democrats, a McAuliffe victory on November 2 will likely be interpreted as a sign of hope that the Democrats can fend off a midterm “shellacking” or “thumping” the sitting president’s party usually suffers. But if McAuliffe’s campaign is any indicator, the Democrats will struggle mightily against anyone who isn’t flaming MAGA.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.