The Memo: Virginia race is proxy war between Trump and Biden
Former President Trump sought to yoke himself to Glenn Youngkin on Monday, in the latest example of how Virginia’s gubernatorial election is resonating across the national political landscape.
Trump complained in an emailed statement that the media had falsely suggested there was distance between him and Youngkin, the GOP nominee in Tuesday’s election. Instead “we get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies,” Trump insisted.
In fact, Youngkin has been careful to keep Trump at arm’s length during the general election campaign. Trump has not appeared on the trail with Youngkin, and a telerally that Trump is holding to urge support for the GOP candidate on Monday night will not have Youngkin’s participation.
But, for Trump, all this is beside the point.
The tightly fought gubernatorial race is in ways a proxy war between President Biden and Trump.
A Youngkin win would deliver a huge boost to Republicans nationwide — and Trump wants to position himself to take a share of the credit.
Such a result would deepen Biden’s already significant problems, which encompass falling approval ratings, difficulty getting his legislative agenda passed, supply chain constrictions and public dissatisfaction on issues such as inflation and immigration.
Even a narrow win for Democrats in Virginia would likely not be enough to calm the party’s nerves as it looks towards next year’s midterm elections — and beyond, to the 2024 presidential election where they fear the specter of Trump will be resurrected.
At the outset of the Virginia campaign, Democrats expected their nominee, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, to enjoy a glide-path to victory in a state where Biden beat Trump by 10 points last year. Though Virginia was once a GOP redoubt, no Republican has won a statewide election there since 2009.
However, the race has tightened considerably in the closing stretch. Youngkin has seized on the issue of schools — a topic that encompasses frustration at COVID-19-related mandates, conservative distrust of local school boards and controversy over the teaching of American history — to propel himself forward in the polls.
Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s campaign has faltered amid anecdotal accounts of an apathetic Democratic voter base. Biden’s standing in the commonwealth is mediocre, with his approval rating in the low 40s in several polls.
The upshot is that Youngkin appears to have the momentum going into Election Day on Tuesday. The level of enthusiasm at recent campaign events has been tangibly greater for Youngkin, even in the Democratic-leaning Northern Virginia suburbs.
A Youngkin event in West Springfield on Saturday evening, for instance, had a noticeably more enthusiastic crowd that the one that turned out for Biden’s sole appearance with McAuliffe, in Arlington several days before.
On Monday, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics shifted its rating of the race from “leans Democratic” to “leans Republican.”
“We know based on President Biden’s sagging approval ratings that the environment is, frankly, horrible for Democrats,” wrote the university’s Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman.
There is, to be sure, little that has gone right for Democrats in the run-up to Election Day.
McAuliffe had eagerly pressed his party colleagues on Capitol Hill to pass two major bills backed by Biden. Doing so would have given him something to show for Democratic control of the White House, Senate and House.
Instead, that process has become bogged down in tortuous internal negotiations. The legislation is expected to pass in the end, but that will be too late to boost McAuliffe.
The broader picture, according to Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky, is one in which “what Biden and the Democrats need to do is to give [Democratic voters] something to vote for. Right now, there is a sentiment among Democrats that they got to the promised land last November and the party in Washington has not delivered to them the things that they voted for.”
Roginsky added: “As of today, I’m not sure that Democrats have anything to be energized about on a national level.”
But beyond the obvious notion that Trump will gloat if Youngkin wins, the lessons of the race are complicated where the former president is concerned.
Trump did endorse Youngkin, and the GOP nominee has never outright rejected him, even though the election takes place just 10 months after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection that the ex-president incited.
At the same time, however, Youngkin’s TV commercials are notably un-Trumpian, positioning him as an affable businessman rather than a standard-bearer for MAGA country.
McAuliffe has been far more eager to stress the links between Trump and Youngkin. Soon after Trump’s email on Monday morning, McAuliffe issued his own statement, which used the words “Trump” or “Trumpism” 10 times in three paragraphs.
“Glenn Youngkin has made his entire campaign about touting the Trump agenda,” McAuliffe asserted.
Some Republicans beg to differ. They say the reason Youngkin is even in contention in a blue-tinged state is because he has kept his distance from the former president.
According to GOP strategist Doug Heye, Youngkin has proved that “you don’t want to run in opposition to Trump, but you can put yourself in a position where you are talking about issues — and are not just a Trump acolyte.”
It is still, of course, possible that McAuliffe will eke out a victory on Tuesday.
But whatever way the result goes, it will have political reverberations beyond Virginia — all the way from the White House to Mar-a-Lago.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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