It’s Election Day in Virginia as voters go to the polls to elect their next governor. The race between Democrat and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin is in a dead heat.
The question voters will answer today: if Republicans are successful in turning Virginia – now blue and formerly purple – red, what does it mean for Democrats across the country? And, what if McAuliffe wins by a small margin?
The truth is: a Youngkin win, or a small-margin McAuliffe win, will have the same effect on my party.
First, let’s take a look at the numbers. Except for one poll from Fox that shows Youngkin with an eight percentage point lead, we haven’t seen any movement in the numbers for Youngkin. The most recent poll by the Washington Post Shar School survey shows McAuliffe up by one percentage point – and that might be all the former governor needs to win this very tight race.
I live in California where polls showed a neck-and-neck recall race between Gov. Gavin Newsom and radio talk show host Larry Elder. In the end, Newsom won by a very healthy margin.
To be clear, the Virginia race isn’t a recall. Virginia certainly isn’t California. And the candidates couldn’t be more different.
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But there are some similarities. First, in California, some Democrats worried that there was more enthusiasm on the Republican side among voters, and we see the same worry among Democrats in Virginia. Second, early voting shows a Democrat advantage – more than a million people have voted early and McAuliffe is currently up by about 300,000 votes. But Election Day turnout could turn the tide and will reveal the strength or weakness of the Youngkin campaign.
McAuliffe has made this race about former President Donald Trump and Youngkin’s alleged similarities. That’s forced Youngkin to try a balancing act: attempting to please the Trump supporters while distancing himself from the former president. Any kind of appearance by Trump might very well hurt Youngkin. In Virginia, one poll indicated voters dislike Trump more than they do President Joe Biden.
Historically, Republicans in Virginia have shown higher turnout than Democrats in off-year elections. But there are several factors that could make this year different. Virginia has increased the number of moderate voters in the suburbs and election observers are seeing (in lines waiting to vote) a very strong African American voter presence in some very typically conservative districts (Stafford county, for instance). And Terry McAuliffe has broken the rules of "history" once before, in 2013.
This race will also be quite different in ways that could benefit Youngkin. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have been dropping. Polls show highest disapproval among voters who are Independents – approximately 33% of Virginia’s voting population. What’s more, Youngkin and his campaign have successfully pushed education and the issue of critical race theory to the top of Virginia voters’ concerns.
But the question here isn’t whether the Democrat wins or not; it’s whether the Democrat wins and by how much. If Terry McAuliffe wins this election by a very close margin, that could have the same impact in the midterm House and Senate races for Democrats as would a loss by McAuliffe.
In other words, if Virginia’s gubernatorial race determines whether my party retains its majority in the House, it’s looking unlikely. And, it could serve as the poster child for other Republican campaigns in which GOP candidates are looking to unseat Democrats elsewhere.
This race also has implications that stretch beyond the House of Representatives. Just look at Virginia’s state legislature – both chambers have a Democrat majority and Virginia has had but one Republican governor in the past two decades. So, a win for Youngkin could start a red wave throughout Virginia’s local political races as well.
As a Democrat, I think the reason this race seems so close is multifaceted. I’d be lying if I said the president’s lower approval ratings aren’t a factor; or that Youngkin seized on the issue of parental rights in schools and critical race theory (even if he has lied that they’re teaching this in "all" Virginia public schools, which "all" are not). Or that the president’s infrastructure bill has been ripe and ready for passage and that the reconciliation bill still hasn’t passed – largely because of the progressive caucus of my party. Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi admitted that continued delay on the voting of this legislation could threaten McAuliffe’s chances.
The bottom line is this: win or lose, Democrats could lose a lot of seats due to the closeness of this race. And Republicans will seize upon Youngkin’s formula for success in a purplish-blue state like Virginia and use it as a model for other races throughout the country.
They say Virginia is for lovers, and today voters will say who they love more for their governor.