Jessica Tarlov: Virginia's lessons for Democrats – 3 issues to watch in Youngkin-McAuliffe race

If Youngkin wins, Democrats will have to rethink their strategy on local races and invoking Trump's name

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I’ll head to the polls Tuesday morning to send Eric Adams to Gracie Mansion as the next mayor of New York City and feel absolutely no stress. Not only do I personally like Adams and voted for him as my top choice in the primary, but the race won’t even be close.  

Having grown up in New York City and now living here as an adult, I’ve never known the type of voting pressure that folks in Virginia are feeling right now. As a pretty reliably blue state in recent years, Virginia’s gubernatorial race wasn’t meant to be all that interesting. But now, judging by polling, Virginia Democrats find themselves in a race that is a statistical tie with a very real chance of losing control of the governor’s mansion to Republican Glenn Youngkin.  

There are a couple major trendlines that have been dominating the conversation about the race.  


First, the exodus of support for Democrat Terry McAuliffe amongst Independents. While he boasted double-digit leads for months, Youngkin now has support from 55% of them, a 17-point advantage, in the latest Echelon Insights survey. Independents have been crucial to any winning Democratic coalition in Virginia.  

There has also been a huge swing from McAuliffe to Youngkin among parents with school-aged kids. With education now the number one issue in the race, ahead of COVID-19 and the economy, according to the Washington Post poll, Youngkin holds a 15-point advantage with parents of K-12th graders and education voters overall favor Youngkin by nine points. They preferred McAuliffe by 33 just a month ago.  

Not a pretty picture for the Democrat. 

The conundrum for Democrats isn’t one of Black voters switching parties and supporting Republicans, but whether Blacks will turn out in the numbers needed to win big elections.  

GOTV events are in full swing with high-profile Democrats continuing to pour into the state to help McAuliffe’s campaign. Whether we like it or not, this race has become a bellwether for the political climate as we head into the 2022 midterms.  

There are three big issues I’m focusing on in Virginia as we look ahead: education, the Black vote, and former President Trump. 

As I laid out above, education has become a huge issue in the Virginia race. McAuliffe’s comment that parents shouldn’t be telling schools what to teach has clearly had an outsized effect on the race. The question then becomes whether this is a trendline that we’ll see pop up in other races. With concerns over kids going back to school, vaccine mandates, masking, the quality of zoom school, and mental health, odds are that it will.  

And is there potential for an issue typically won by Democrats who have been overwhelmingly supportive of teachers unions and public school curriculums, to lose ground to Republicans nationwide? If there was a time for it to happen, that time is now as COVID-19 continues to ravage communities and parents voice upset over the content of their kids’ education.  


Black Americans have been consistently reliable Democratic voters, even as Republicans have picked up an extra percent or two in recent elections. The conundrum for Democrats isn’t one of Black voters switching parties and supporting Republicans, but whether Blacks will turn out in the numbers needed to win big elections.  

The McAuliffe campaign is acutely aware of the problem and has brought in big names in Black politics to galvanize support. He has shared the stage with former president Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison, House Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, and Stacey Abrams among others. While they didn’t all deliver the same speech by any means, the message was clear: Black Americans decide elections and they must turn out. This will be a huge focal point of the midterms, too.  

Lastly, what to make of the Trump factor? Though the former president endorsed Youngkin, the candidate has made it a priority to avoid nationalizing the race and aligning himself too closely with the controversial former president. At the same time, Democrats have been working overtime to tie Youngkin to Trump as they know how much of a motivator Trump’s name is for Democrats to get to the polls.  


If Youngkin is successful, Democrats will have to reevaluate their strategy of making local races national and, crucially, invoking Trump's name whenever they can. Without his name on the ballot, it just may not be as salient, especially with a GOP candidate more politically moderate and temperamentally fit for office. 

We’ll know the outcome of the race very soon and can begin dissecting each and every angle. And there will surely be unexpected twists and turns in the exit poll data. But these three issues are electoral factors that Democrats are watching closely as we consider our future in Virginia – and beyond.