Virginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP

Republicans are looking at the governor's race in Virginia as a critical test ahead of the midterm elections as the party grapples with the continued influence of former President Trump.

GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin is preparing to face off against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state that has trended blue in recent years and that rejected Trump in 2016 and 2020.

But Republicans say they see a path forward for Youngkin in the blue state, one that will require the candidate to win the support of the pro-Trump base while also expanding his appeal to the suburbs. 

"I see this as a test case this fall for 'Is Virginia competitive again without Donald Trump in the White House?' " said Tucker Martin, ex-aide to former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican to hold the post. 

"My theory of the case is that it will be more competitive," he said. 

A recent poll conducted by the conservative firm WPA Intelligence found Youngkin trailing McAuliffe 48 percent to 46 percent, within the 4-point margin of error.

Another poll conducted by JMC Analytics showed McAuliffe leading Youngkin by 4 points, 46 percent to 42 percent, again within the 4-point margin of error. 

Youngkin will likely face an uphill climb in the state, which has not seen a Republican governor elected since McDonnell in 2009. On top of that, Youngkin, a political newcomer, will have to work more than McAuliffe to build his name ID. 

But his supporters and allies argue that his lack of history in politics gives Democrats less leeway to land legitimate attacks against him in the general election. Youngkin has already raised $15.9 million since announcing his candidacy in January, including a $12 million loan from himself, which could be a boon to building his name recognition. 

Youngkin describes himself as a "former dishwasher" who later worked at the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm, for 25 years, eventually serving as CEO. 

While Youngkin worked to rally the state's conservative activist base during the party's nominating convention earlier this year, he has since struck a unifying tone in an effort to appeal to more Republicans across the party's spectrum, along with other undecided voters. 

A spokesperson for Youngkin's campaign said the candidate appeals to a broad swath of Republican voters. He's seen support at a "libertarian breakfast or a pro-Trump breakfast," the spokesperson said.

"It's a positive message, and it's one that voters haven't seen over the course of four years. They're coming off of a divisive election," said one GOP operative with ties to Virginia. 

Youngkin has scored endorsements from the last three Republican governors of Virginia. But he's also garnered the endorsement of Trump, who threw his support behind Youngkin the day after he won the state GOP convention. Youngkin noted he was "honored" to receive Trump's backing and that the former president "represents so much of why I'm running." 

McAuliffe and his Democratic allies have since run with the endorsement and Youngkin's past praise of Trump, tying the two Republicans together in the commonwealth Trump lost twice. The former president lost Virginia by 5.3 points in 2016 against Hillary Clinton and then by 10 points against President Biden in 2020. 

"Virginians have, for a number of years, been rejecting the GOP," said a Democratic operative. "And it's not just Donald Trump by name, it's all of his allies and ever-growing strand of Republican extremism." 

The former governor and his Democratic allies have released a number of ads that include Trump and Youngkin praising each other. 

Youngkin allies have brushed off the attack as "desperate," "tired" and "old." They point to Trump not being in office and being banned from Twitter, his preferred messaging tool. 

"Each day that goes by that Donald Trump is not able to click send on a tweet makes it harder and harder for Terry McAuliffe and Virginia Democrats to do an already impossible task, which is to make this race about Donald Trump," the GOP operative with ties to Virginia said. 

But Trump still holds considerable influence among national Republicans and is viewed widely as a kingmaker in the party's politics. The former president has also continued to tease another potential White House run in 2024. 

Anti-Trump sentiment, fueled by the fact that Trump was still in the White House at the time, arguably boosted Democrats in the 2017 gubernatorial election, where Gov. Ralph Northam (D) defeated Ed Gillespie (R) by 9 points. 

"We had a real surge of what I would call presidential-year Democratic voters. These are folks that typically do not vote in these off-year elections," said Martin, who advised Gillespie during the campaign. "Neither the Northam campaign nor our side saw those voters coming because you don't model for that kind of turnout. It jumped all the way to 47 percent." 

Trump endorsed Gillespie in the race but did not hit the campaign trail with him. The then-president later criticized Gillespie for not embracing him "or what I stand for." 

Youngkin's campaign noted there were currently no plans for Trump and Youngkin to campaign together ahead of November. 

Youngkin has also gone on the offensive against McAuliffe, portraying himself as a political outsider while painting his opponent as the ultimate insider with ties to the Democratic establishment and the Clintons. 

The Republican's campaign rolled out an ad shortly after McAuliffe won the nomination last week, highlighting a number of clips showing former gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy attacking McAuliffe during the primary and calling for new leadership.

Republicans also question whether the former president's absence could depress Democratic turnout in an off-year election with a Democrat in the White House. 

"The big question is what does turnout look like when Trump is not the one driving the vote like he did in 2017, and do we revert to a more traditional off-year election turnout model in Virginia?" Martin noted. 

Both candidates have pledged to put a focus on "kitchen table" issues as governor. For McAuliffe, those issues include expanding investment in public education, gun control, Biden's American Rescue Plan and health care, which Democrats tout as a winning issue. 

Youngkin has talked about the need to reopen the state amid the pandemic, citing the closures' impact on the economy and education. The Republican has also delved into cultural issues, including what he says is the need to combat critical race theory in schools and touting a pro-law enforcement message.  

Turnout will be key for both candidates in November, but strategists argue that the state's suburbs could be a major tipping point in the election. 

Mark Rozell, dean and Ruth D. and John T. Hazel chair in public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said that Republicans have a chance to win back counties that have turned increasingly blue.

"With the right candidate, the right message, I think the Republicans can hold down their losses in the urban corridor and win back enough of the suburbs with their rural vote to win statewide," Rozell said.