Eyeing November: Trump trouble ahead for Youngkin? A Biden burden for McAuliffe?

Much depends on events both foreseeable and unpredictable

August 23, 2021 12:01 am

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on August 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban has taken control of six provincial capitals, among other towns and trade routes, since the United States accelerated withdrawal of its forces this year. Afghan families from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan provinces have arrived in Kabul in greater numbers, fleeing the Taliban advance. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

Democrat Terry McAuliffe views Donald Trump as a key to his second tenancy in Virginia’s Executive Mansion. At every turn, the former governor tries to tether his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to the unpopular immediate past president.

After a rotten week for President Joe Biden from the wakeful nightmare that is the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, however, might McAuliffe and the Democrats also bear a Biden burden in Virginia’s election just over two months away?

It’s too early to say. Much still depends on events both foreseeable and unpredictable. If the evacuation of Americans and allied Afghans goes reasonably well, the president could be seen by election day as an intrepid leader who made a hard call, held fast through the storm and was vindicated in the end.

Or the volatile and violent Taliban could send Biden’s approval numbers plummeting further. 

In a campaign as close as our governor’s race, commanders-in-chief past and present, for good or ill, could exert just enough gravity on the orbits of either party’s nominee to influence the outcome. And Virginia’s marquee governor’s race stands as 2021’s most-watched barometer of the nation’s direction after Trump’s departure and a year before the 2022 midterms.

A poll released Friday by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University showed the race to be about even. Forty percent of the 823 likely Virginia voters surveyed from Aug. 4-15 supported McAuliffe to 37 percent who backed Youngkin, a result that’s within the poll’s 5.23 percentage point margin of error.

Terry McAuliffe campaigns for governor in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Ed Gillespie is living proof that a toxic president can poison his party’s gubernatorial nominee in Virginia. Gillespie, a lobbyist and archetypal Washington insider, had scared the bejeezus out of Democratic Sen. Mark R. Warner, who narrowly won a second Senate term over Gillespie in 2014. The former Republican National Committee chair was about as different as you can be from Trump and still be in the GOP. But in the 2017 governor’s race, Trump was an albatross around Gillespie’s neck, and he was crushed by Ralph Northam, whom one fellow Democrat once described as “a beige spot on a beige wall.”

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies, isn’t sold on the idea that the Afghanistan calamity could render Biden a pariah of Trump’s magnitude in Virginia.

“Who knows? If we have a hostage situation or they start executing Americans, then all bets are off,” Farnsworth said. “There’s very little support in either party for staying in Afghanistan, and foreign policy issues almost never matter in governor’s races anyway. So, as long as Americans are extracted safely, Afghanistan is not likely to shape this November’s election.”

Biden’s job approval dipped last week from 59 percent in July to 54 percent in a new poll The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released on Saturday. A NBC News poll released Sunday showed Biden’s approval below 50 percent — to 49 percent, down from 53 percent in April — for the first time in his presidency.

Both polls found disapproval of his handling of the new COVID-19 surge to be driving his lower overall approval. The AP-NORC survey of 1,729 adults was conducted Aug. 12-17 as the Taliban toppled the Afghan government and the fresh hell at the Kabul airport was broadcast worldwide. Its margin of error was 3.2 percentage points.  The NBC survey of 1,000 adults was  conducted Aug. 14-17 and reported a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Biden was blindsided by the Taliban’s 11-day takeover of Afghanistan after two decades of American occupation, reportedly with American-trained and equipped Afghan government forces often abandoning their posts without ever firing a shot. Biden had naively assured Americans of an orderly pullout with no desperate scenes like the fall of Saigon when helicopters plucked desperate refugees off the roof of the isolated U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam. What we saw from Kabul was arguably worse: frantic Afghans clinging to the gray hull of a taxiing U.S. Air Force cargo jet filled with evacuees, some of whom plunged hundreds of feet to their deaths as the plane climbed during takeoff.

After holing up at Camp David as the stunning weekend unfolded, Biden was unbowed in a Monday afternoon White House address, denying any ownership of the outcome. He correctly noted broad support for ending America’s longest war after 20 years, stressing that he made it a campaign promise and, unlike any of his three predecessors who had superintended the conflict, made good on the promise. With substantial justification, he blamed an Afghan government for the 20-year-war’s catastrophic denouement, portraying it as craven, corrupt and inept.

Yet he assumed the demeanor of a sullen teenager in rejecting any suggestion that he erred and that the evacuations of Americans and allied Afghans who now find themselves at the mercy of Taliban should have commenced months ago, not as the last U.S. troops stowed their gear and headed home. 

Assuming things don’t worsen and U.S. nationals get safe passage home, however, the horrors in Kabul might mean little to Virginia voters, said Christopher Newport University political science professor Quentin Kidd.

“We used to say that six weeks is a lifetime in politics. Now, two weeks is a lifetime in politics. I think voters might have moved on by then,” Kidd said.

Perhaps no state is more keenly attuned to federal issues and what happens across the Potomac than Virginia, particularly its sprawling suburbs highly dependent on the government and federal contractors for employment. But not all federal issues rouse Virginia’s electorate equally, and those that do are likely events that affect Virginians’ daily lives, Kidd said. One example is the federal government shutdown weeks before the 2013 gubernatorial election.

“Thousands of federal employees across Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads suddenly found themselves furloughed and without a paycheck that they thought was coming,” Kidd said. It was among the factors that benefited McAuliffe as those voters blamed Republicans in Congress for disrupting their lives and took it out on his GOP opponent, Ken Cuccinelli.

“What’s going on in Afghanistan isn’t directly affecting thousands of voters in Northern Virginia the same way,” Kidd said. “Are they irritated? Perhaps. Do they wish things had been done differently? Sure. But is that the same as ‘I don’t have a deposit in my account and I thought I would?’”

So McAuliffe continues to press his most persistent attack against Youngkin as a Trump proxy in a state that proved hostile to Republicans throughout Trump’s candidacy and his presidency. Trump endorsed Youngkin, and Youngkin praised Trump as he sought the GOP nomination. 

How hostile? During Trump’s four years, Virginia Democrats regained control of every statewide elective office, both General Assembly chambers, both U.S. Senate seats and a majority of its U.S. House seats for the first time since 1968.

Glenn Youngkin addresses a crowd of supporters in Richmond during his first rally after winning the GOP’s nomination for governor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Youngkin smartly presents himself in paid media as an easygoing centrist focused on education, jobs and economic development – kitchen table issues that dominated Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2009 campaign, the last time Republicans won statewide races in Virginia.

Yet his actions have generated headlines that buttress McAuliffe’s claims and invite Trump trouble for Youngkin. He was the only member of the GOP’s statewide ticket to attend a rally at Liberty University of “election integrity” advocates who advance Trump’s lie that Biden stole last year’s election from him.

Whether Biden’s Afghanistan tempest worsens and taxes McAuliffe or not, McAuliffe swims against some significant Virginia historical currents.

With a motivated GOP base bone-tired of losing and poised to take the offensive and vote, McAuliffe hopes to become the first former governor since Mills Godwin in 1973 to win a second term.

Modern Virginians dislike partisan dynasties. For the past 27 years, neither party has held the governor’s office for more than two consecutive terms. McAuliffe seeks to stretch the Democrats’ lease on power to three terms in a row, a hat trick last achieved in the 1980s and 1990s by Democrats Chuck Robb, Gerald Baliles and Doug Wilder during the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush presidencies.

Which leads to perhaps the most stubborn and troubling of Virginia’s penchants for McAuliffe: denying the governorship to a candidate of the same party as the sitting president. Only one governor has bucked that trend in the past 11 elections: McAuliffe, eight years ago.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]