By Linus Hoeller
RICHMOND/LEESBURG/DUMFRIES – As opinion polls in the race for Virginia’s governorship remain well within margin of error, both parties have a shot at holding the key to the Governor’s mansion – and Democrats nationally have gone on the offensive, not just because they want to win, but because they have a lot to lose. A loss for the Democratic candidate, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, to his Republican rival, businessman Glenn Youngkin, has the potential to send political shockwaves through the Democratic party nationwide and could sound the death knell for Biden’s domestic policy, experts and voters alike agree.
“If McAuliffe loses, Biden’s ambitious agenda is on life support,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the Mary Washington University in Virginia. The two key bills in question – a more than $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and an even more ambitious creation of social safety nets in a separate, up to $3.5 trillion bill, are currently in limbo as a result of fractures within the Democratic party itself. A reckoning that would follow a lost Virginia election could deepen existing divides among Democrats, Farnsworth said.
The overall poor polling performance of McAuliffe, who for most of the race held a slim, margin-of-error lead over Youngkin and in the final days has been trailing slightly behind Youngkin, has already resulted in some internal finger pointing, which would likely become much more public after a McAuliffe loss. Among politicians and voters alike, moderates argue that the high price tags of Biden’s bills turned off voters and flipped some moderate Democrats to vote Republican. Progressives, meanwhile, say that the lack of results coming out of Washington disillusioned potential Democratic voters and failed to mobilize them – an argument that might be strengthened by the traditionally lower turnout of the off-year Virginia election.
With the threat of a lower number of people showing up to polling places than in the Presidential election a year ago (low turnout usually hurting Democrats disproportionately in elections) and the national context looming large, the party pulled all stops to try to mobilize Virginia voters. Aside from it already being the most expensive Virginia governor’s race in the state’s history, with campaign finance filings totaling more than $115 million, the Democrats brought in some national superstars for McAuliffe: Former President Barack Obama was on stage alongside Senator Tim Kaine; Vice President Kamala Harris and even President Biden himself came out to speak to the crowd, the guests often drawing bigger cheers from the crowd than McAuliffe himself. Their messages all stressed one key point: The race in Virginia is not just about Virginia. Biden implored voters in heavily Democratic Arlington to “show up for democracy. For Virginia. For the United States of America.” In Richmond, Democratic National Convention Chair Jaime Harrison emphasized how “Virginia is very important; we want to make sure that we turn the vote out.” And Harris made the national connection even clearer by telling voters that each of them “has the ability to determine, yes, who will be the next governor; but also by extension, given the importance of this Virginia election, how the country is going to move.” Several of the speakers told the voters directly: “I need you.”
The national context of the election was not lost on the grassroots volunteers driving forward Democratic campaigns across Virginia. “A win in Virginia would provide a huge boost for Democrats nationwide,” said executive director of Swing Left, Tori Taylor, at a door-knocking event in Leesburg, a town in the far north of the state. “But elections are never won and done,” she added. “We have to keep civic engagement perpetual. [The tight margins are] already a call to action for 2022,” when congressional midterm elections threaten the slim Democratic majority in Washington and with it, the possibility of progressing Democratic policy priorities.
“Some people are wondering whether Democrats are falling asleep at the wheel,” said Dalton Bisson of Fairfax, who said on Saturday as he was out canvassing in Leesburg that he had already cast his ballots for Democratic candidates making use of the Democrat-expanded access to early voting. Despite this worrying perception, he said he was optimistic about the outcome of the election. “I think Tuesday will surprise a lot of people,” he said.
On the flip side, some Democrats fear that a win in Virginia, while the preferred outcome, might result in complacency from Democrats on the Hill. “A win is a win is a win,” said Professor Farnsworth. “Reckoning only happens on the losing side.”
It’s an opinion shared by voters like Bisson. “There will be a few people who are super into this sort of thing who will dig into the results, but in the end, the margin won’t really matter,” he said.
Perhaps not too dissimilar from the stopgap deals Congress settled on to avoid a government shutdown, a McAuliffe win would be good for Democrats – but likely not result in a fundamental change of course, only serving to buy them a little more time to continue on the current track of internal gridlock toward an uphill battle in the midterms.
Cover photo caption: At a campaign event in the small town of Dumfries, from left to right, Va. Attorney General Mark Herring, Dorothy McAuliffe, Former and hopeful future governor Terry McAuliffe, Vice President Kamala Harris, and candidate for Lieutenant Governor Hala Ayala wave to the crowd after a rally. (Linus Hoeller)