AMAC Exclusive by Daniel Roman
The Virginia Governor’s race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe has captured the attention of both the media and anyone invested in following American politics. There is little doubt that Youngkin’s campaign has surged: it has pulled dead even with the former Democratic governor in many public polls. Meanwhile, the House of Delegates is in play as well, with control now seen as a tossup. The entire ticket has evidently been lifted by the same dynamics that have powered Youngkin’s rise.
The task for Youngkin, and for the Commonwealth’s Republicans, is now to “close the deal”—and to do so, they will need to use the next week not only to mobilize swing voters in Northern Virginia, but also on a perhaps unexpected task: turning out the Trump base on the other side of the state.
Here it is useful to remember the unique way the national political press treats the Commonwealth of Virginia. Many DC-based pundits, strategists, and staffers live in Northern Virginia, and covering happenings in Loudoun County is a nice break from reporting from motel rooms in Des Moines. This is one reason that events in places such as Loudoun take on outsized importance nationally. Yet we must ask whether this phenomenon may have led to both Democratic and Republican gubernatorial campaigns almost exclusively focused on Northern Virginia issues. Indeed, almost all the narrative of the campaign, the major conflicts, and the events seem to focus on Northern Virginia, which has become Ground Zero for the national fight over education policy.
This is not to say that these issues are not important, or that Northern Virginia is not a critical battleground in the race. But while Northern Virginia’s population has exploded over the last three decades, along with its weight in Virginia politics, there are still other parts of the state that matter. Indeed, the two groups that formed the heart of Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s primary coalitions, rural Virginians in southwestern coal country, and African Americans on the southside of Richmond, have been almost entirely ignored in the national media’s coverage of this campaign. And evidence is that these groups have, in turn ignored, the gubernatorial campaign itself.
As of October 19th, 480,000 ballots had been cast early, with another 178,000 requested by mail. Of those, a mere 38,000 were cast in the 9th Congressional district in Southwest Virginia, which went for Donald Trump by a margin of 70%-28% in 2020. And only 48,000 have been cast or requested in the heavily African American 3rd Congressional District, which Biden carried 67%-31%.
Against all of the current narrative of the campaign, these numbers imply that over the next week, this very close gubernatorial race may not in fact be decided by voters in Northern Virginia, but instead by how well Youngkin and McAuliffe do at turning out Southwestern blue-collar whites and Richmond-area African Americans, respectively, for the next seven days.
As referenced above, it is quite clear that both Youngkin and McAuliffe have run Northern Virginia-based campaigns focused heavily on the concerns of suburban voters, many of them parents with children. Youngkin has used worries over taxes, Democratic efforts to defund the police, and radical efforts to overhaul the education system since Democrats took full control of the state government in late 2019 to undermine Democratic support in those areas. In response, McAuliffe has tried to make the election about Donald Trump, abortion, COVID, and more or less anything but what is actually happening in Virginia or the man he is running against. At times, Virginia voters could be forgiven for thinking that McAuliffe is running against Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, or the Texas legislature (even using the slogan “Don’t Texas our Virginia”). McAuliffe has also been suggesting that Youngkin will imitate Florida’s Ron DeSantis in preventing local governments from requiring masks and vaccine mandates over parental objections.
That McAuliffe is running against Donald Trump and not Glenn Youngkin, and on issues in Texas and Florida rather than Virginia, indicates he feels he will lose on a straight up comparison with Youngkin on Virginia issues. And indeed, the evidence—including Joe Biden’s collapsing approval numbers and overwhelming signs of parental anger—suggests that McAuliffe is probably correct that he would lose a Virginia-focused race.
Yet one of the problems with McAuliffe’s approach is reflected in his Richmond-area numbers with African Americans. As McAuliffe’s campaign has focused on a largely ideological appeal to Northern Virginia progressives, it has struggled to turn out those (such as African Americans) who are less enamored with the progressive agenda and worldview. McAuliffe’s campaign has approached this challenge as a logistical problem—inviting Stacey Abrams to the state to spread conspiracy theories about her own electoral defeat in 2018; playing a video in black churches of Vice President Kamala Harris urging parishioners to vote (likely an illegal appeal); and, most significantly, calling in Barack Obama. Will it work? Well, McAuliffe does not need 2008 or 2020 turnout to win. What likely matters is if this strategy succeeds in getting more Democrats to the polls.
As McAuliffe races to address his shortcomings with the black voters that his campaign has neglected, Youngkin’s fate may be decided by his success in mobilizing a group of similarly neglected voters. While many have argued that Youngkin has failed to distance himself enough from former President Trump and will pay for that choice on Election Day, in fact the evidence suggests the opposite may be true. If anything, Youngkin needs to ensure he is doing everything possible to turn out the Trump base in Southwestern Virginia.
The idea that Youngkin needed to run away from Trump has always been a bit of a fallacy. No matter what Youngkin did, the type of voters who vote on anti-Trump messaging were going to go against him. Such voters already believe that any Republican who does not explicitly accuse the party in general (and the former President in particular) of being a “threat to democracy” is themselves a danger to national security. The same is true of the abortion issue. Nothing short of threatening to veto any abortion restrictions and calling abortion a fundamental right, as Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Phil Scott in Vermont have done, would ever suffice for a certain set of Northern Virginia Democrats who actually vote on those issues.
Despite McAuliffe’s best efforts, Youngkin shows signs of having cleared the threshold of acceptability with many Northern Virginia voters. Now, to close the deal, he needs to motivate the disengaged voters in Trump country—the Southwestern part of the state that is not historically deep-red Republican, but nonetheless voted big for Donald Trump. Before 2010, the 9th Congressional district had been in the hands of Democrat Rick Boucher. Gore received 42% in 2000, Kerry 39% in 2004, and Obama 40% in 2008 and 37% in 2012. The collapse to Clinton’s 27% and Biden’s 28% is recent and a personal consequence of Trump’s appeal to the working-class voters in this part of the state.
With Youngkin’s campaign focused on not turning off swing voters in the areas around D.C. and the Richmond suburbs, many of these voters in rural Virginia could be forgiven for thinking there is no election going on. In many cases, the issues discussed have little to do with them. They do not hear much from the candidates. It is hardly surprising that they are turning out at less than 60% of the rate of the state at large.
If, a week from today, Youngkin comes up just short, the chances are that it will not be because he failed to make a breakthrough on crime or education in Northern Virginia, but because his campaign did not take advantage of the opportunity over this next week to turn out Trump country in Southwest Virginia, just like a panicking McAuliffe campaign is desperately trying to turn out Richmond-area African Americans. In this scenario, McAuliffe’s anti-Trump campaign will have worked not by persuading Virginia voters that Youngkin is Trump in miniature, but by scaring Youngkin and the GOP into running an overly defensive campaign that prevented Republicans from appealing to the voters who should have been their most reliable base of support.
The good news is that Youngkin still has time to close the deal. McAuliffe’s attacks have clearly failed to destroy him, he shows signs in polls of having broken through with the mythical “Northern Virginia woman,” his opponent’s campaign is floundering, the Democratic President is deeply unpopular, the economy and foreign affairs are not going well, and the media is declaring the party “in disarray.”
Everything is in place to allow a Republican to capture the Governor’s mansion in a commonwealth where they haven’t won statewide office in over a decade. All Youngkin has left to do is to get Trump’s supporters to show up and carry him across the finish line. The good news is it’s a task that should be much easier than winning a few more wavering marginal voters in the deep-blue Northern Virginia. In fact, it should be eminently doable for Youngkin, with the right attention and focus. He has to go there and make the case that McAuliffe, like Biden, has handed control of his agenda to the extreme left—while reminding them that the new Democratic Party not only wants to teach their children crazy things, but also to kill their coal jobs, raise their gas prices and energy bills, eliminate private gun ownership, and micromanage every aspect of their lives.
This is a not a time for Youngkin to settle back and think he can coast to victory without offending anyone. He has to run all the way through the finish line, making an argument that the voters he needs now will actually respond to. We will find out one week from today whether Youngkin can do it.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics
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