Should Democrats be worried if they can’t even win Virginia?
Media and political experts are watching the Virginia governor’s race, trying to determine whether next week’s vote will augur a national trend leading into next year’s congressional midterms.
After Joe Biden’s 10 percent margin over Donald Trump in the state last year, prevailing opinion held that Virginia had turned blue. Northern Virginia, the most populous part of the state, has for years been a Democratic stronghold.
Former governor Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton associate and archetypical Democratic establishment figure, seemed assured of victory until a few weeks ago. The Republican challenger, businessman and political neophyte Glenn Youngkin, has run an effective campaign and is giving McAuliffe a run for his money. Two months ago, McAuliffe led Youngkin by 8 percent, but now the race is a statistical dead heat. Joe and Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, and even Barack Obama have made campaign swings for McAuliffe in an attempt to rouse Democrats out of their complacency — a true challenge, given that Donald Trump is nowhere on the ballot.
“Virginia is trending in a Democratic direction,” says Josh Kraushaar, senior national political columnist for the National Journal Daily. “There are more suburban voters that lean to the Democratic Party, but Virginia also has always been a moderate state. The Democratic Party has nominated moderate middle-of-the-road candidates, and I think it’s fair to say that the Democratic Party now has full control of Virginia politics, of the state legislature, and they have held the governorship since 2013.
“But there is a widespread backlash against a lot of the decisions being made in Richmond. The fact that it’s not just President Biden in Washington that’s in power, Democrats in Congress that are in power, but for the first time in almost 20 years, Democrats have had full power now in Virginia politics, and there’s a backlash against some of the decisions being made in Virginia that are much more liberal in direction.”
A couple of factors have taken the wind out of McAuliffe’s sails. During a September 29 debate, Youngkin advocated for involving parents in local school board decisions. McAuliffe, somewhat hastily, countered by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Although McAuliffe later tried to clarify that his remark had been taken out of context, it had already garnered attention in a contentious national debate about race and gender in local school curricula.
Every Ballot in Play
But that’s not all. Dissatisfaction with Biden, and specifically the fear of inflation, have contributed to the change in the polls. As a result, many are now looking at this race from a broader viewpoint and wondering if it’s a precursor to 2022. Should Democrats be worried if they can’t even win Virginia? With every ballot in play, the state’s 200,000 Jewish voters will be crucial.
“Joe Biden won Virginia by more than 10 percent only one year ago — so if this race is as close as the public polls and those on the ground in Virginia say it is, Democrats should get their life jackets ready, because a red wave is likely in the November 2022 midterms,” says Republican Jewish Coalition national political director Sam Markstein.
“This is unsurprisingly a tight race, in a politically divided state and at an incredibly divisive time in our nation’s history,” counters Halie Soifer, CEO for the Jewish Democratic Council of America. “The issues in Virginia are similar to those nationally, including mask mandates, education, economic recovery.”
She went on to say that a key issue for Virginia’s Jewish voters is the rise of domestic extremism and anti-Semitism, “as we all saw four years ago when neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.’
“This week, those same neo-Nazis will return to Charlottesville, but this time because they’re on trial for their crimes,” she said.
Youngkin, meanwhile, found himself fending off accusations of raising anti-Semitic canards in his own campaign rhetoric last week, after he decried progressive political initiatives funded by billionaire George Soros.
“In this race, Glenn Youngkin has both ignored and engaged in anti-Semitism, clearly demonstrating that he is, at best, willing to follow in the footsteps of Trump and the far right of his party in using bigotry for political purposes,” charges Soifer.
“This is anybody’s game right now,” Markstein insists. “The issues motivating voters in Virginia right now are education, where Glenn Youngkin stands strongly with parents and families, while Terry McAuliffe stands with union bosses; the economy, where Glenn Youngkin is a successful businessman who’s supported the creation of hundreds of thousands of American jobs, while Terry McAuliffe is a political insider who wants to raise taxes and increase spending; and support for law enforcement, where Glenn Youngkin proudly has law enforcement’s back, while Terry McAuliffe campaigns with ‘defund the police’ activists.”
Josh Kraushaar puts things in perspective.
“Virginia always holds its governorship election one year after the presidential election, and it historically has served as a check against the party in power in the White House,” he tells Mishpacha. “There’s been a long streak over the last 40 years in which the party that wins the governor’s race in Virginia is the opposite of the party of the president in the White House.
“The only exception to that rule was actually Terry McAuliffe in 2013. And even that race was expected to be a blowout for McAuliffe, and he won by only three points, a narrow margin. So the historical tendency is for Virginia voters to send a message to Washington to take a different direction than that of the presidential election of the last year. You’re seeing that in Virginia this year — Glenn Youngkin, a Republican outsider, someone who never ran for office before, coming out of nowhere to run a highly competitive campaign against the former governor, Terry McAuliffe.”
Therefore, Kraushaar says, people shouldn’t read too much into the Virginia election as portending a national trend.
“It doesn’t predict the [2022 Congressional] midterm, but what it does show is that Virginia voters tend to want to balance out what happened the previous year,” he says. “There is a tendency for voters to want to check the party in power. Bill Clinton learned that lesson in the mid-’90s. Presidents tend to think they have a mandate. They try to do more things than the public is ready for. And then there’s a political backlash that takes place across the country.”
Kraushaar says the Virginia race highlights the importance of public school education for voters.
“What you’re seeing from a political perspective is a lot of school boards that were once politically balanced between Republicans and Democrats are now filled with almost entirely liberal Democrats controlling educational decisions in local jurisdictions in Northern Virginia and in other suburban parts of the state,” he says. “So parents who were once used to seeing balance in the school boards are now seeing a one-size-fits-all progressive direction in many of these leading school boards, especially around Northern Virginia, and moderate voters and conservatives certainly are protesting and disillusioned about the direction the school boards are going in.”
In this environment, the GOP nomination of Youngkin looks like a very savvy move.
“It helps to be an outsider in politics,” he says. “There’s no record that Democrats can point to, to attack Glenn Youngkin. He’s a businessman. He’s someone who has spent his career outside of elective politics. And no matter what party you’re from, that often confers a political advantage.”
And although Donald Trump exploited that same advantage to win the White House in 2016, Youngkin does not carry Trump’s baggage.
“He is someone who has no connections with Donald Trump,” Kraushaar says. “So he’s someone who has been able to win over more suburban moderate voters than Republicans typically win over these days. And he’s also managed to maintain support with the Republican base, the Trump base, which is very outraged about decisions being made in Washington and in Richmond.”
Given Youngkin’s background, and Virginia’s traditional maverick stance against whichever party holds power in Washington, the Democrats could perhaps have strategized a better gubernatorial campaign. And yet the latest trends in the polls have seemingly caught them flatfooted, throwing them into a panic. Kraushaar attributes that to complacency.
“Democrats never should have taken this race for granted,” he says. “This was always going to be a competitive race. It’s their own fault that they weren’t prepared for the type of campaign, the type of pragmatic campaign that Glenn Youngkin has run. The only explanation I have is that some Democrats have been caught in their own bubble where they don’t think about issues like education. And they weren’t prepared for inflation and the economy to become issues, despite ample warning that these were political warning signs for the Democratic Party.”
McAuliffe could well reverse the trend and pull out a victory, but if he loses, Kraushaar says Democrats will have to take stock to avoid repeating mistakes in the 2022 midterms.
“It’s not an encouraging sign for Democrats or for the White House, for a state that Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points to elect a Republican governor just one year later,” he cautions. “It doesn’t mean that Democrats can’t improve their position in a year in preparation for the midterms, but it does show that they cannot count on some of the Biden voters who were voting against Trump to stay with the Democratic Party simply because of Trump’s presence within the Republican Party.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 883)
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