Five things to watch in the Virginia governor’s race

Virginia’s closely watched gubernatorial race will come to a head on Tuesday as voters go to the polls in an election that will likely set the tone for next year’s midterm elections. 

Polls show former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) neck and neck with former private equity CEO Glenn Youngkin (R), making Democrats nervous as the party prepares for a midterm election year that will likely be viewed as a referendum on President Biden’s first term in office.

Here are five things to watch in Virginia’s gubernatorial election.


Will Youngkin break through in the suburbs? 

Virginia’s cities and suburbs, particularly those in the northern part of the state outside of Washington, D.C., have long been considered Democratic strongholds.

Youngkin’s allies have acknowledged throughout the course of the campaign that breaking through the Democrats’ blue wall in the suburbs would be difficult. However, the campaign has argued that Youngkin’s path to victory doesn’t necessarily involve the need to win the state’s suburban and exurban enclaves.

But Youngkin’s supporters and allies have hinted that his campaign’s focus on education-related issues, chiefly parents’ rights over school boards, will appeal to suburban voters. Loudoun County, which has been the epicenter of the battle between school boards and parents, could be the best test case for the strategy. 

Democrats have brushed off the suggestion that Youngkin could make major inroads in northern Virginia as a Republican a year after former President Trump lost the state by 10 points. On top of that, President Biden won Northern Virginia by 520,000 votes last year. In Loudoun County, Biden bested Trump with a whopping 61 percent of the vote, compared to Trump’s 37 percent.

How will Trump and Biden factor in? 

Trump’s unpopularity in the commonwealth is playing into Democrats’ strategy of tying Youngkin to the former president. It’s also likely playing into Youngkin’s move to keep the former president at an arm’s length.

Youngkin has not campaigned with Trump in person but has said he is “honored” to receive his endorsement. Instead of visiting Virginia to hold an in-person rally, Trump is slated to hold a telerally in support of Youngkin on Monday.

Trump waded into the race once again on Monday morning, releasing a statement saying he gets along well with Youngkin and that the two “strongly believe in many of the same policies.”

McAuliffe was quick to release his own statement responding to the one put out by Trump, calling the former president’s remarks “nothing but the culmination of a dangerous alliance to bring division, hate, and Trumpism to Virginia disguised in a fleece vest and khakis.”

But Democrats are also grappling with Biden’s relative unpopularity. The president’s nationwide approval rating sunk to 42 percent, according to a national NBC News survey released on Sunday. Polls show his approval ratings in Virginia mirroring his national approval rating.

Biden has faced headwinds on Capitol Hill in recent days, with Democrats struggling to unite to pass the president’s bipartisan infrastructure plan along with a massive economic spending package.

Democrats argue that McAuliffe’s move to campaign with Biden in the closing days of the election is an indication that the president is only proving to fire up the Democratic base.


What will turnout look like for Republicans and Democrats? 

The move to bring in the party’s heavy hitters, including Biden, former President Obama, Vice President Harris and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to campaign with McAuliffe is a part of the broader strategy to fire up the state’s Democratic base. 

Polls show Republicans prevailing over Democrats on the enthusiasm gap. A Monmouth University poll released last month showed 49 percent of Republican voters saying they are more enthusiastic than usual to vote in the election compared to 26 percent of Democrats.

Unlike McAuliffe, Youngkin’s campaign has not brought in big-name GOP figures. Despite not having big name figures, Youngkin has still managed to attract crowds of well over a thousand at his recent campaign events. 

Democrats argue that the low enthusiasm on their end is a result of fatigue coming out of a major presidential election that took place amid a global pandemic, as well as it being an off-year election. But the race has garnered more national attention in recent weeks, which could be a good sign for Democrats, who are looking to wake their base up. 

The party is also looking at recent early voting data as a positive sign for McAuliffe. According to the Democratic data firm Target Smart, at least 1,137,656 people have voted, with Democrats making up 53 percent of that count and Republicans making up 30 percent. This gap will likely close on Election Day when GOP voters are expected to show up to the polls. 


Which way will Virginia’s minority voters swing? 

Democrats and Republicans will also be closely watching how Virginia’s minority voters swing, specifically Black and Hispanic voters. Black voters make up roughly 20 percent of the population, while Hispanic and Latino voters around 10 percent.

“We have to turn out in big numbers,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who campaigned with McAuliffe this weekend and has been credited with galvanizing the Black vote for Biden during last year’s Democratic presidential primary. 

Black voters played a pivotal role in Biden’s 2020 victory, notably flipping Georgia for Biden and ushering now-Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) to victory. The party is hoping to replicate that in Virginia, where Black voters favor McAuliffe over Youngkin 81 percent to 8 percent, according to a Suffolk University poll. 

The Hispanic and Latino vote is also being closely watched, with Republicans looking to make inroads with that constituency. An Emerson College survey conducted and released earlier this month found Youngkin leading McAuliffe 55 percent to 45 percent with Hispanic voters.

The voting block proved to be pivotal to Republicans in a number of key races in 2020, particularly in Texas and Florida, where Republicans flipped two House seats.


Will both candidates accept the election results? 

While McAuliffe and Youngkin have said they will accept the results of the election, Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him have loomed large over the Virginia contest. 

McAuliffe has repeatedly hit Youngkin for his “Election Integrity Task Force” and his calls to audit Virginia’s voting machines, saying his rhetoric matches Trump’s on the issue. Youngkin notably broke with Trump in September, saying that he did not believe Democrats were going to try to steal the election and that he fully expected to win.

Republicans have sought to flip the script on McAuliffe and Democrats, pointing to 2004 comments from McAuliffe in which he said Democrats won the 2000 presidential election.

Former Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, and thus the presidency, to former President George W. Bush. The 2000 contest is considered to be one of the closest in U.S. history and culminated in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision.

When asked last month by CNN’s Dana Bash whether he thought Republicans stole the election, McAuliffe said he wished the Supreme Court would have “let them finish counting the votes.” 

Republicans have also knocked McAuliffe for campaigning with former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Abrams, citing her claims that she lost her 2018 gubernatorial bid in Georgia as a result of voter suppression.

Tags Al Gore Barack Obama Dana Bash Donald Trump Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Raphael Warnock
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