Virginia gubernatorial race makes Republicans dream of a post-Trump future

A tense race for governor in Virginia tests a new reality for Democrats and Republicans: how to run when Donald Trump is not in the White House and not at the polls.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor looking to return to office in next month’s election, tries to portray Republican Glenn Youngkin as the second coming of the former president, who lost Virginia by 10 percentage points the year last.

“The Trump years have been nothing short of terrible for Republicans in Virginia,” said J. Tucker Martin, a Richmond-based consultant who served as director of communications for former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. “He hid the sun. He made it impossible to convey anyone’s message. Every campaign in the state was just a proxy vote on what you think of Donald Trump, which, if you’re in North Dakota, is a lot to Republicans. If you are in Virginia? Horrible affair.

Youngkin, who has Trump’s approval and shares many of the former president’s conservative views on politics but has little else in common with him in tone or style, introduces himself as particularly capable of uniting the enthusiasts and enemies of Trump.

“Glenn is just taking advantage of the fact that there is suddenly oxygen again,” said Martin. “He can be himself. He can talk to voters. They listen.

The November 2 election results will be instructive for the 2022 midterm campaigns.

Virginia’s gubernatorial election falls the year following the presidential elections, prompting interpretation both as a referendum on the ruling party and a harbinger of what is to come. This year’s polls show a close race, with McAuliffe’s efforts to tie Youngkin tightly to Trump so far having failed to shake Republican enthusiasm.

“I think some feel that we are beating Trump, mission accomplished, and that lessens the obvious urgency and existential threat,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist who was McAuliffe’s press secretary when he premiered. successful candidacy for governor. “Which is something we have to overcome.”

In their last debate this week, the two candidates stuck to their strategies.

McAuliffe has twice referred to Youngkin, a former CEO of private equity giant Carlyle Group, as a “Trump contender.” He noted that his rival had made “electoral integrity” – a phrase Republicans often use to appeal to those who firmly but mistakenly believe that the last election was stolen from Trump – a top priority in the election. primary of the GOP.

“He wants to bring politics to Trump in Virginia,” McAuliffe said, “and we won’t allow that.”

Youngkin offered a relatively lukewarm response when asked by NBC News moderator Chuck Todd if he would support Trump for president in 2024, saying only that he would support Trump if he was the GOP candidate. Youngkin also poked fun at McAuliffe’s fixation on Trump, observing in the middle of the hour-long debate that he had already mentioned the former president’s name more than 10 times.

“The only person who invokes Trump,” Youngkin accused, “is you.”

Youngkin has kept Trump at bay since winning the Republican nomination, accepting his endorsement but showing little interest in rallying to his side. He focused on local issues, such as his plan to eliminate the Virginia grocery tax, rather than engaging in hyperpartisan battles that energized Trump’s base and nationalized other state and local races. .

McAuliffe, meanwhile, could face political headwinds from President Joe Biden, whose number of approvals has plummeted amid a protracted pandemic and a chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

“Terry McAuliffe is losing, and his last ditch effort to make this race against Glenn Youngkin against Terry McAuliffe is desperate and not working,” said Youngkin spokesman Macaulay Porter.

Youngkin’s Republican allies say he skillfully managed his coalition, keeping Republicans “Never Trump” and “Forever Trump” in the same GOP tent. But for Democrats, who argue that Youngkin always hits the Trumpy ropes when addressing Tories, it’s a sign of duplicity.

“It’s not like he’s suddenly transformed into Larry Hogan,” said Schwerin, referring to the Republican governor of neighboring Maryland, who has been a vocal critic of Trump. “Like Terry said on the debate stage, he says one thing to one crowd and another to another crowd and hopes he can get away with it.”

Virginia’s dynamic is similar to that which unfolded before last month’s recall election in California. There, Democrats sounded the alarm that, even though they outnumbered Republicans in the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom could lose if his party voters didn’t bother to run.

In this race, Newsom was aided by the emergence of Republican candidate Larry Elder, a talk-brand radio host, who was a perfect foil to liven up the liberal base. Youngkin, however, is not so keen on playing this role.

“Of course you want your opponent to look like a mini-Trump,” Martin said. “The problem they have is that Glenn Youngkin is not Donald Trump. He does not present himself as Donald Trump. He doesn’t act like Donald Trump. It just doesn’t match.

Democrats, however, have made a meal of every bite they can find.

After an Axios article last weekend paraphrased Youngkin as saying that Biden’s victory over Trump was legitimate, but declining to say whether he would have voted to certify the election results as a member of Congress, McAuliffe’s aides and allies treated it like a major scandal.

The story itself exemplified the playing strategy on both sides of Youngkin. The next day, he clarified in a interview with WTKR Channel 3 in Norfolk that he would have voted to certify the 2020 election.

Democrats took advantage of another moment when Youngkin spoke imprecisely. After saying during the recent debate that traditional measles, mumps and rubella vaccines “may be mandatory” – even though he opposes the mandates for the Covid-19 vaccine – Democrats have presented him as a refusal to support the long-standing demand for schoolchildren to receive these other inoculations.

“We cannot allow Glenn and his right-wing anti-Covid security program anywhere near the governorship,” Gov. Ralph Northam, the outgoing limited-term Democrat, said on a call with journalists organized by the State Democratic Party.

Republicans, who have not won a statewide election in Virginia since McDonnell’s election 12 years ago, are eager to see a race unfold without Trump looming in the air. horizon and increase Democratic participation.

“I think in some ways Virginians are politically tired,” said Taikein Cooper, chairman of the Prince Edward County Democratic Party, who appears on electoral maps as a blue island in the middle of the Red Sea in the rural center of the state. “We were winning the election in Virginia long before Donald Trump was a candidate, so we have to do some of the things we used to do.”

Two polls this week, from Monmouth University and Roanoke College, showed McAuliffe leading Youngkin, but with a margin of error. Both polls also showed Republicans to have an enthusiasm advantage. In Monmouth’s survey of registered voters, Youngkin led McAuliffe, 57% to 40%, of those who described themselves as more enthusiastic about this election than previous gubernatorial races. In Roanoke’s survey of potential voters, 43 percent of Republicans said they were extremely enthusiastic, compared to 35 percent of Democrats.

Nick Everhart, a national GOP media consultant, said Youngkin performed an “incredibly difficult, zero-sum act” by appealing to the highly educated and independent suburban voters whose support is essential in Democratic-leaning states.

“Whether he’s ahead or not,” Everhart said, “Youngkin appears to have positioned himself against the backdrop of a worsening Democratic national political environment to cross the canyon.”

Martin, the former McDonnell veteran, cautioned against overconfidence.

“It’s still a home game for the Democrats and an away game for the Republicans,” he said. “It’s just the truth of what Virginia is right now.”

About Therese Williams

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