WASHINGTON, Sept.28 (Reuters) – Almost a year after President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Virginia, the state’s surprisingly tight race for governor has alarmed Democrats and left Republicans hoping they can win back the Crucial suburban voters who left the party during Trump’s tumultuous presidency.
With an early vote underway, Cook’s non-partisan report called the Nov. 2 contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, former Virginia governor, and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, a draw. A poll conducted last week by the University of Mary Washington gave Youngkin an edge over likely voters.
It’s a surprising show of strength for the Republican in a southern state that has had a Democratic lean in recent years. Trump lost 10 percentage points in November, double his margin of defeat in 2016, in large part because his scorched earth policy pushed back moderate, suburban and female voters.
As one of the first statewide elections since Trump left, the race in Virginia is seen as a barometer of national political trends and a preview of what will happen in the 2022 election. who will decide which party controls Congress.
Current Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, cannot stand for re-election because the state prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms.
While McAuliffe, 64, remains favored, Democrats “should absolutely be worried about the prospect of losing this race,” said Jesse Ferguson, Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign aide.
“It’s absolutely a four-alarm fire,” he said. “It’s been burning red for months.”
The Biden administration has recently faced many challenges, including the chaotic withdrawal of Afghan forces, the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, and the humanitarian crisis on the southern border of the United States.
This week, the White House faces the prospect of a government shutdown if Congress fails to reach an agreement to maintain federal government funding, while Democrats are divided over a massive spending bill that includes Biden’s key priorities. Read more
According to a Reuters / Ipsos poll last week, 44% of American adults approved of Biden’s performance, while 51% disapproved – his lowest ratings since taking office in January.
Youngkin, 54, a former chief executive of private equity firm The Carlyle Group Inc (CG.O), offers an alternative for voters who weren’t comfortable with Trump but don’t feel at home in the Democratic Party, said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from northern Virginia.
“These people voted for Biden because they didn’t want Donald Trump in their living room for four more years,” Davis said.
Youngkin, he said, “speaks the language of the suburbs. People don’t have to be embarrassed to put a Youngkin sign in their backyards.”
Democrats are watching the race closely. A lack of enthusiasm among their constituents and some independents who backed Biden in November is a worrying harbinger before next year’s election, said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist.
“Democrats have a year to turn the tide, but right now the electorate is not where we need them for the midterms,” Tribbett said.
The governor’s race in Virginia has often served as a control for the party holding the White House. After Republican George W. Bush became president, Virginians elected Democrat Mark Warner in 2001. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell won the one-year presidency from Democrat Barack Obama. While Virginia has moved in a more liberal direction since then, experts say it is more competitive without Trump on the ballot to galvanize Democratic participation.
The former president still holds pride of place: The election has become a test of whether Republicans like Youngkin can successfully navigate the gap between supporting Trump and being seen as a separate adherent entire movement “Make America Great Again”.
Youngkin presented himself as a foreign businessman rather than a politician taking up the torch from Trump. At the same time, he has tried not to stray too far from Trump’s orbit to alienate his ardent supporters.
He did not endorse Trump’s false claims about stolen elections, although he spoke at an August “electoral integrity” rally organized by Trump supporters. He urged Virginians to get vaccinated against COVID-19 but opposed the vaccine and mask warrants. Youngkin argued for postal voting – methods Trump falsely called unreliable.
Youngkin adviser Kristin Davison said the campaign brought together “Trumpers forever and never Trumpers” – trying to appeal to the Trump base while reaching out to disgruntled Independents and Democrats on issues such as inflation, education and crime.
This strategy carries a risk. Trump argued in a recent radio interview that Youngkin must “fully embrace the MAGA movement” or risk losing. McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin to Trump on every opportunity, suggesting there is little daylight in between.
“He’s an aspiring Trump,” McAuliffe said of his rival during their first debate. The second debate is scheduled for Tuesday.
McAuliffe, who served as state governor from 2014 to 2018, has increasingly entered the virus safeguards competition. He said he would demand that all teachers and healthcare workers be vaccinated and ran ads criticizing Youngkin on the issue.
His campaign believes it will be a factor of difference with suburban parents, an aide told Reuters.
A source familiar with White House thinking said McAuliffe was leading a race focused on COVID-19 and the economy, similar to themes that Democratic Governor of California Gavin Newsom highlighted by handily beating a led recall campaign by Republicans this month. Read more
The White House is not worried about the race, the source added. “We always knew it was going to be tight.”
Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and James Oliphant in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney
Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.