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How the Republicans can steal Virginia Old ghosts haunt the battle to be its next Governor

McAuliffe is a parody of Democratic politics (Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images)


October 12, 2021   6 mins

Democrats are worried. They are worried about the President’s plunging approval ratings; they are worried about their stalled legislative agenda; they are worried about the public reaction to the withdrawal from Afghanistan; about the pandemic; the economy; inflation; the southern border. And they are also worried about Virginia.

Old Dominion has been getting steadily bluer for years. It’s been twelve years since a Republican has won a state-wide race here. Joe Biden romped home by ten points last November while Trump’s 44% vote share in 2020 was the worst performance by a Republican presidential candidate in the state since 1968. Virginia was starting to look like it might be out of the Republican Party’s reach. And that is what makes its upcoming off-cycle gubernatorial election such a perilous electoral test: an upset loss next month would be taken as an ominous sign of things to come. It would bring back memories of 2009, when a Republican win in Virginia brought Democrats down to earth with a thud after Obama’s election and presaged carnage in the following year’s midterms.

This year’s bad-blooded, expensive, fiercely fought contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin has all the hallmarks of a tight race: polls give McAuliffe a lead in the low single digits. Virginians are faced with two candidates cut from the same cloth. Both are members of the Washington elite. Both are residents of large suburban mansions in up-market McLean, just across the Potomac from DC.

In many ways, McAuliffe seems closer to a parody of a Democratic insider than the real thing. He first made a name for himself in the famously salubrious world of Clinton fundraising. In 1996, he drummed up $275 million for the Clintons. In 1999, the New York Times described him as Bill’s “closest and most loyal Washington friend”. Al Gore has described him as “the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe”.

McAuliffe, now worth tens of millions of dollars, wasn’t shy about what was in it for him. In an interview for that Times article, he boasted that “I met all of my business contacts through politics” and said that there was “no question” that his business associates dealt with him in part because of his close ties to the President.

Once he was safely ensconced in Washington’s self-enriching, self-regarding and self-sustaining network of political professionals, a status confirmed by a stint as chair of the Democratic National Committee, McAuliffe sought elected office. After a failed run for Virginia Governor in 2009, he succeeded in 2013. Virginia prohibits consecutive terms for its Governor. Hence McAuliffe’s four-year break before this year’s run.

The once and future Governor looked exactly as at home as you would expect on a recent weekend campaign stop in Fairfax County, northern Virginia, a wealthy part of the state McAuliffe must have squeezed tens of millions out of in campaign contributions over the years. These DC suburbs have turned from red to blue and are supposed to form a bulwark against the Republicans, who fare much better in the State’s rural south and west.

As McAuliffe’s party has gone upmarket socioeconomically, it has shifted leftwards ideologically. In a garden full of khaki-clad suburbanites who all seem to know him as “Terry”, the crowd dutifully outdoor masking on a sunny early-autumn afternoon, McAuliffe nodded along as a warm-up speaker explains that “climate change is a women’s rights issue”.

But that leftwards drift is proving a problem on the ground in Virginia. One member of the crowd, Deetzie Bayliss, is running as a Virginia House of Delegates in a heavily Republican area. She tells me that the “D” next to her name is a turn-off for too many independents. “You seem like you’d do a good job,” she says one voter told her recently, “but I see that letter and I think of Nancy Pelosi, so I’m afraid I can’t vote for you”.

When it is McAuliffe’s turn to speak, he trots out his accomplishments in his first term as Governor but is at his most enthusiastic when he reminds the audience that his opponent belongs to the same party as Donald Trump.

“You all know I am running against a Trump wannabe,” said McAuliffe, to polite boos, before painting a dystopian picture of Virginia under Republican rule. McAuliffe likes to refer to his opponent as Glenn Trumpkin and whenever they meet to debate, accuses him of being a “mini-Trump”.

In both demeanour and platform, however, Glenn Youngkin is a far cry from the former President. He is softly spoken where Trump is brash, and seems determined to avoid controversy rather than seek it out like a homing missile. Youngkin does describe himself as an outsider; he declares in his Twitter bio that he is “not a politician”. But while it is true that he has never held elected office before, the claim nonetheless stretches credulity.

Until recently, Youngkin was the CEO of The Carlyle Group. He spent 25 years at the DC-based private equity firm, and has the nine-digit net worth and fleece vest collection to prove it. His attacks on “Washington” are more than a little undermined by his ascent to the top of the business world in the city that shares its name with that term of abuse. Like his opponent, then, he is a throwback to a previous era in his party’s development — in his case, a more buttoned-up, establishment brand of conservatism (albeit with an added sprinkling of populism).

If McAuliffe’s challenge is to defy the President’s plummeting ratings and gin up the Democratic coalition with it-could-happen-here alarmism about the consequences of a GOP win, Youngkin’s task is equally tricky: he must somehow keep happy diehard Trumpists and win over enough moderate suburbanites turned off by the party’s rightwards turn but still concerned by the Democrats’ increasingly assertive progressivism.

That may sound impossible, but several developments have suddenly made it seem feasible. The most important is the growing disenchantment towards Biden felt by many Democrats and independents. No wonder McAuliffe has publicly despaired at the possibility that his party might fail to pass their infrastructure package or their Build Back Better legislation before election day on November 2.

Education has also loomed large in the race, offering Youngkin a policy area where rural conservatives and moderates in the suburbs might be able to find common cause. Thanks in part to over-mighty teaching unions, Northern Virginia’s schools were slow to reopen during the pandemic, with some only recently returning to full-time in-person instruction. Virginia has also been a flashpoint for the fight over how history and racism are taught in America’s classrooms, with bitter fights at school board meetings in Loudoun County making national headlines. Youngkin has promised to ban critical race theory in classrooms if he is elected. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” said McAuliffe in a disastrously blunt moment recently. Needless to say, it has featured heavily in Youngkin television ads ever since.

But even with these tailwinds, Youngkin must still keep together a bitterly divided Republican family if he is to even contemplate victory in a state that leans Democrat. Signs of the tensions in that coalition were on display at a debate watch party in Northern Virginia earlier this month. The crowd of Youngkin fans who piled into an Alexandria sports bar were a mix of boomer suburbanites and younger, more raucous and more MAGA-friendly clusters.

In one exchange over vaccine mandates, McAuliffe accused Youngkin of siding with the anti-vaxxers. A corner of the room whooped in approval at the idea: “Hell yeah!” Others seemed a lot less impressed, indignant about the accusation and perplexed by the evidently unvaccinated guests. Later in the evening, a chant of “America First” broke out to the bemusement of the more sedate members of the crowd. “He’s nothing like Trump,” mutters one such supporter to me at another moment, shaking her head at the screen when McAuliffe trots out his well-rehearsed mini-Trump accusation.

Indeed, Youngkin’s balancing act has not always been a pretty sight, especially when it comes to dancing around Trump’s stolen-election crankery. During the primary, he did his best to dodge direct questions about whether Biden was the legitimately elected president, instead making much of his plans for “election integrity”, an unconvincing fudge and a euphemistic nod to Trumpian conspiracy theories. Once he had seen off his Republican rivals, he was suddenly a lot clearer about last year’s result, though even recently equivocated about whether he would have voted to certify the election results were he in Congress. He later confirmed that he would.

Perhaps that is why while Trump has endorsed Youngkin, the two have notably not appeared side by side on the campaign trail. Biden, meanwhile, hit the campaign trail back in July, before his presidency entered the rocky patch from which it is yet to emerge. McAuliffe, however, appears to be in no hurry to invite him back.

Neither Biden nor Trump are currently in Virginia — but the election has nonetheless devolved into a referendum on the most prominent Democrat and Republican in the country. Democrats are hoping that the excess of a former President is enough to distract from the shortcomings of his successor. But, as this close race suggests, they cannot rely on their favourite bogeyman forever.


Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

ollywiseman

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Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

‘Let’s Go Brandon'”

(for those of you up on the Biden memes)

Terry Needham
PR
Terry Needham
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I know it, so it must have gone horribly mainstream.

Ray Zacek
RZ
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

Horribly mainstream is combining Let’s Go, Brandon with a Squid Game allusion.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ray Zacek
Graham Stull
GS
Graham Stull
2 years ago

After what the Democrats have done with COVID hysteria, lockdown, mask mandates and now vaccine mandates, I will never support that party again.
I’m very much in camp DeSantis these days.

Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

Aka ‘deathSantis’ in Florida.

Ray Zacek
RZ
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Only the a-holes call him that.

Laura Cattell
LC
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Ray Zacek

Well I guess I’m one of them.

Ray Zacek
RZ
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Admitting the problem is the first step to recovery.

Lesley van Reenen
LV
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Diehard democratic voters will still be waving little blue flags when the lights finally go out, the streets are overcome and the entire populace fights each other on the streets.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Fear is deadlier than COVID.

Samir Iker
SI
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Strange how no one compares death rates per capita in Florida to California or New York….even before you adjust for higher cancer death rates, mental illness, etc, resulting from over the top lockdown measures.

Karl Schuldes
KS
Karl Schuldes
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Is it fulfilling being a pawn of the Establishment?

Cathy Carron
CC
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

To your list add: the Afghanistan debacle, Kamala Harris-the-joke/joker- of a VP, support of CRT is schools, the disaster at the southern border (and just Biden’s laisse faire immigration policy in general), returning the Interior Dept to Wash DC after Trump moved it to Colorado (the USA needs to break up the DC federal govt colossus where the average income is so high from lobbyists and federal dollars they don’t even experience national recessions.), Biden’s disasterous cabinet – General Milley who’s way out over his skis pandering to China, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan who it appears is going to be implicated for perpetuating Hillary’s Russia Hoax, Transportation Secretary Buttigeig who has completely lost the plot or never really found it and is no where to be seen re: The Southwest Airline problems….just about every cabinet member ‘has issues’. Not to mention the looniness of Nancy Pelosi & Chuck Schumer who can’t seem to fart-straight in Congress. Say what you will about Trump – he got a lot of good things done for the USA – many of which Biden has reversed through Executive Orders. Biden /Harris is a disaster.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Cat Fan
Cat Fan
2 years ago

Education, education, education! NOVA is heavily Democrat and I would have said, despite parts of VA being deep red, that Youngkin sadly does not stand a chance. McAuliffe throwing his lot in so strongly with the school boards may cost him in terms of turnout and independents.
In Northern Virginia parents are increasingly frustrated with the attitudes of school boards: the COVID response, the equity/CRT policies and the silencing of parents who complain. Take a look at the current goings on at Thomas Jefferson High in Fairfax (the WSJ has a piece on the PTSA leader today and his campaign against the school board).
In Loudoun County school board meetings have been closed to comment due to ‘aggressive’ parents. One of the parents being arrested being Scott Smith of Leesburg who wanted to talk about the assault on his daughter in a high school bathroom by a transgender student, a student who apparently assaulted another girl in an empty classroom not long after. The school board closed comments before he was due to speak and he then got an argument with part of the usual kindness crew who said she did not believe his daughter.
See also in Loudoun County, Beth Barts who is being recalled for after she made a list of parents in a private Facebook group who she said should be tracked so that their claims about the school board could be countered (mostly claims about CRT).
Parents across the board are seriously unhappy with the way school boards are being managed, and no surprise. It will be an uphill battle, but I would love to see Youngkin pull this off.

hugh bennett
HB
hugh bennett
2 years ago

Well, I enjoyed this read, a relief as I was getting weary of Unheard. I am British but always try to fit Virginia into my US holiday schedules. I had noticed subtle changes through general vibes that you tend to pick up when you stay in places, during my latest visits, there were things abroad that I didn`t like, folk stirring pots simply to course rancour.
An aside – I was lucky enough to visit the old Museum of the Confederacy before it was ” absorbed” into the Woke-fest institution that is now the American Civil War Museum. I am all for telling a holistic story but it is the predictably woke narrative that drives me mad.
In a way its somehow appropriate that a spotlight has fallen on this State.

Last edited 2 years ago by hugh bennett
Ray Zacek
RZ
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  hugh bennett

I have ties to the state going back thirty years and visit often. Appalls me how much Virginia has changed. The Peoples Republic of Northern Virginia, its kudzu-like vines spreading along I-95, has come to dominate Old Dominion.

Andrew Lale
AL
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

Win Virginia. Win. Not steal. Virginia does not belong to the Democrats.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

A bit of a misleading headline. While NOVA is certainly aligned with the DC bigger government democrat voter, the school issue has been ugly for big government fans. Many are turned off by the arrogance of the school boards and unions who have abandoned their clients. McAuliffe erred in suggesting the boards know more than parents about what children need to learn. If the NOVA turns on him, he is lost. The D’s own urban areas but the R’s dominate other areas. The balance is too close to call, but the incompetence of the D’s has hurt their cause.

William Hickey
WH
William Hickey
2 years ago

Virginia, like the rest of the country, asked for it and they are getting it. One in every seven VA residents is foreign-born.

They thought anybody could be an American, so they let anybody in. One million legal immigrants mostly from the Third World per year for 40 years. Fools.

Now they whine about how things have changed and blame the Democrats — who do they think is voting heavily for the Democrats?

Great Britain would never be so foolish as to believe anybody could be English, right?

Wait, what?

Last edited 2 years ago by William Hickey