RICHMOND, Va. — Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone? For Virginia Democrats, that may be Donald Trump – a galvanizing force that propelled the party to historic victories in 2017, 2019, and 2020.
After Trump won the White House in 2016, voters sent a Democratic governor back to Richmond’s executive mansion in 2017. Democrats then recaptured control of Virginia’s General Assembly in 2019 – a goal sought for more than two decades.
And in 2020, Joe Biden nearly doubled Hillary Clinton’s election margin in the commonwealth, winning Virginia by 10.11%.
Now, a RealClearPolitics polling average shows a 5% point margin between former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R), the former Carlyle Group co-chief executive.
“I think the reason for that, primarily, is Donald Trump is not president anymore,” said Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist.
“All of those previous years, we had elections where a lot of the conversation was about President Trump. And that anger about President Trump really motivated Democratic voters around the commonwealth.”
A Fox News poll conducted Sept. 26 – 29 suggested an enthusiasm deadlock in the race (50% of Youngkin supporters responded they were ‘extremely interested,’ versus 47% of McAuliffe supporters who expressed extreme interest).
A Roanoke College survey released a day earlier suggested more Republicans were enthusiastic about voting in the race (43% of Republican respondents were extremely enthusiastic, versus 35% of Democratic respondents).
Yet Dr. Ravi K. Perry, political science chair at Howard University, said the McAuliffe campaign is cognizant of turnout and will seek to avoid a mistake of assuming key base voters are locked in before November 2.
“I think what we should expect, is that Democrats are going to tap into their base in Central Virginia, the African-American community in parts of Hampton Roads, and certainly Northern Virginia,” Perry said.
Republican base turnout for Youngkin may be a different story – considering the candidate consistently keeps his distance from former President Trump.
“Republican Glenn Youngkin needs Donald Trump. He just doesn't want to say the name,” read the first sentences of Wednesday’s Associated Press story after the final Virginia 2021 gubernatorial debate.
The Republican nominee often avoids invoking Trump’s name at rallies, stays far from defending the twice-impeached president’s grievances, and has said, after clarifying earlier remarks, that he would have voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think it will be interesting for all of us, to look to see what stars are [Republicans] able to bring out, and how much is Youngkin going to be able to distinguish himself from the kind of embroiled politics of the national Republican Party,” Perry offered.
“So, the question is going to be, how effective he is in saying, ‘hey, I’m not exactly as polarizing as you may perceive national politics to be in the Republican Party.’”
While Virginia is seen as a leading political bellwether – its governor’s race a year after the presidential election and one year before midterm elections – the commonwealth is not a mirror image of the country. It is more racially diverse, has a higher percentage of residents with college degrees, and has a lower percentage of people who live in poverty.
Farnsworth of Mary Washington University cautioned the election environment this year will not predict or replicate the one found next year, and stressed the tide of the most recent blue wave may not have fully ebbed.
“I think, on balance, the odds still probably favor the Democrats in Virginia,” Farnsworth said. “The idea that you lose a 10-point margin in a presidential election year going into a governor’s election-year one year later, that’s a pretty strong change of events in a year.”
“But it’s not outside the realm of possibility.”
The first gubernatorial debate between Democrat candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin is held in Grundy, Virginia.