Commentary

With Trump sidelined and Biden floundering, has the Virginia GOP found its mojo?

A perfect storm could be brewing for Democrats

October 4, 2021 12:01 am

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, left, and his Republican rival, Glenn Youngkin, are hitting on national political themes in their race. (Virginia Mercury)

For a politician, having a worst enemy is way better than having a solid ally.

It’s not easy to rouse your village without a Grendel to vanquish. You have to come up with boring stuff like ideas for better ways to govern or how to fix what’s broken.

Virginia Democrats have had an impressive decade-long run, galvanized during the past five years by the sneering, orangish menace of Donald Trump. It was like catnip animating a coalition of Democrats, allied independents and even Republicans repulsed by Trump’s disdain for common decency or constitutional norms and the way he hollowed out the party’s traditional conservative ethos.

So you can understand why former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, this year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, pines for the bad old days of Trump’s presidency as he tries to win back his old job.

As if McAuliffe’s Trump-baiting wasn’t already blatant in his advertising, earned media and stump speeches, it became his mantra during the second and final debate of Virginia’s off-off-year governor’s race last week. McAuliffe invoked Trump’s name 14 times in less than an hour, hoping to handcuff him to Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee.

Getting Trumped had clearly frustrated Youngkin in their first debate two weeks earlier. It showed in his exasperated, flushed face before a statewide television audience. But last week, Youngkin had done some homework and turned the tables on The Macker midway through the hourlong debate, perhaps with the aid of a gaming app.

“Terry, you just made the folks in Las Vegas a lot of money,” Youngkin told his rival after a flurry of Trump references. “There’s an over-and-under tonight on how many times you’re going to say ‘Donald Trump,’ and it was 10, and you just busted through it.”

Then he turned toward McAuliffe and twisted the knife.

“I know you wish you weren’t, because the polls show I’m ahead, but you’re running against me,” Youngkin said. “Let’s have Terry McAuliffe vs. Glenn Youngkin and let’s let Virginia voters decide who they want their next governor to be.”

Youngkin took a bit of liberty by claiming he’s leading. While he’s gained ground from midsummer polling, recent independent public polls show a dead heat.

A University of Mary Washington poll showed Youngkin with a slight edge among likely voters, but McAuliffe with a similar statistically insignificant edge among the wider sample of registered voters.

Similarly, a poll by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University showed a deadlocked race and omens of a tepid Democratic turnout.

Both polls surveyed registered and likely voters from Sept. 7-13 and the results were within the margins of error. But they both foster the impression that the Virginia GOP may have found its long-lost mojo.

A huge factor is that Trump is neither in office nor on the ballot. He is a greatly diminished figure (and threat) from a year ago when it was clear that he would (and did) attempt extraordinary means to subvert an election and remain in power.

“This is a more favorable environment for Republicans than any (Virginia) election during the Trump years,” Stephen Farnsworth, a Mary Washington political science professor, said of the findings in his university’s poll. “And Youngkin himself doesn’t generate the hostility that other Republicans have in statewide contests.”

While the polling suggests McAuliffe is faring marginally better among the broader sampling surveyed, Youngkin is slightly stronger among respondents who are determined to vote. And it’s votes cast, not good vibes and well wishes, that win elections.

Another Democratic problem is that Joe Biden is the president, and his recent track record is a buzzkill. Polls consistently show his job-approval ratings underwater, especially since the calamitous military exit from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s almost overnight rise to power, the worsening chaos along the U.S.-Mexico border, China’s unchecked global strategic and economic gains and a creaky response to the summer surge in COVID-19 infections. Blend in Democrats’ inability to enact any of their legislative priorities despite controlling both the White House and Congress and hapless disarray ahead of a critical Oct. 18 deadline for raising the nation’s debt ceiling and averting a financial catastrophe and it’s little wonder this is a dispiriting season for them.

Conversely, motivation for the woebegone Virginia GOP is simple: survival. Nearly a dozen years after its last statewide victory and, since last year, fully shut out of power to an extent not seen since 1969, defeat this fall under the most favorable conditions in years could consign the GOP to generational irrelevance in an indelibly blue Virginia.

“Republicans are hungry, they’re motivated to win something statewide after being shut out for over a decade. They see that this time, they have a real chance,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School at GMU.

He noted red flags for the Democrats in the Post/GMU poll. Youngkin held a 20 percentage point advantage in northern Virginia exurbs such as Prince William County that have been integral to Democratic victories since 2005. Youngkin also had an 8-point edge among independent voters.

“That’s a very telling statistic,” Rozell said. “McAuliffe is going to have to find that intensity factor to mobilize Democrats at the grass roots in the way that they were mobilized during the Trump era. Right now, it doesn’t seem to be working with him telling voters to look at Youngkin and see Trump.”

Also in Youngkin’s favor is a Virginia trend in which the party in the White House seldom wins the governor’s office. The lone exception in the past 44 years was 2013 when McAuliffe was elected one year after President Barack Obama won re-election.

Finally, there’s Princess Blanding, a third candidate. Running under the Liberation Party banner, she could be a deeply sympathetic figure to some Black voters. Her brother was Marcus David Peters, an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot in a 2018 confrontation with police in Richmond during a mental health crisis. The two percentage points she garnered in the UMW poll aren’t eye-popping, but any dilution of the Democratic-leaning African American vote in Virginia’s low-turnout gubernatorial elections is dangerous for McAuliffe in a race this tight.

With Election Day still four weeks away, however, there’s time for Youngkin to stumble. And there are tripwires aplenty.

A novel Texas anti-abortion law that has all but banned the procedure there and that Florida and other states are considering has sent chills through abortion rights supporters who’ve viewed a covert video of Youngkin promising to “go on offense” against abortion access if elected.

His opposition to COVID-19 vaccination mandates could prove troublesome in a state where, according to the Post/GMU poll, two out of three adults favor compulsory shots for school teachers and staff. That’s considerably higher than the national average of 59 percent. Though Youngkin is himself vaccinated and encouraged others to do the same, when pressed in last week’s debate, he said he supports mandated vaccinations against mumps, measles and rubella but not for COVID-19, appearing to suggest there is insufficient data about the new vaccines.

And there’s the delicate tightrope act he’s attempting in his relationship with Trump. Repudiate Trump and Youngkin risks alienating his MAGA masses; embrace Trump and he destroys his carefully calibrated pitch to suburban swing voters as a non-threatening moderate. A misstep either way could sink him, and it’s a factor not fully within Youngkin’s control or ability to elude.

During last week’s debate, when pressed by moderator Chuck Todd, Youngkin said he would support Trump if he is the 2024 Republican presidential nominee.

Also last month, about 19½ minutes into a radio interview, Trump was asked about Youngkin. Trump, who has repeatedly endorsed Youngkin, said he liked him. But then, in a manner distinctly Trump, he made his benediction transactional.

“The only guys that win are those that embrace the MAGA movement,” Trump said. “They have to embrace it.”

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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]

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