Divisive US issues at the heart of Virginia governor’s race
Political strategists and analysts in the US are closely watching a tight race for the Virginia governor’s office. Many see it as a bellwether for national politics over the next year and the midterm Congressional elections in 2022. While there is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of any single state election to national politics, the Virginia race has important implications for US politics.
The candidates for governor of Virginia are Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin is new to politics, with experience in the business world working for the Carlyle Group. McAuliffe previously was governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018; Virginia law does not allow a governor to serve consecutive terms.
The race initially looked likely to favor the Democrats. McAuliffe has a reputation as a pro-business moderate, with a strong record as governor. Virginia is a “purple” state where both Republicans and Democrats can win, but recently it has leaned in favor of Democrats. President Joe Biden easily won Virginia, by 10 points, in last year’s presidential election.
However, polls now show a very close contest. The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows a slight advantage for McAuliffe but in a too-close-to-call race. Early voting has started, and election day is Nov. 2.
There are several reasons the race is closer than many previously expected. Youngkin is wealthy and helping to fund his own campaign, which has created challenges for McAuliffe, though the Democrat managed to raise more than Youngkin in September. Although Biden easily won Virginia in last year’s election, his approval ratings in Virginia recently have dropped, likely adding some drag on McAuliffe’s chances.
Apathy among Democrats and ambivalence among independents is another major challenge for McAuliffe. If turnout is high, he is likely to win, but it is unclear whether enough Democrats feel motivated to vote. Many voters are fatigued after the constant drama of Donald Trump’s presidency, last year’s intense national elections, and the Jan. 6 invasion of the US Capitol. The pandemic’s constant upheaval and uncertainty also has exhausted many people, who struggle just to manage daily life.
Democrats and independents have other reasons for ambivalence. Biden’s election hinged on a promise of low drama and functional governance. While his presidency has been relatively low on drama, it has failed to deliver much of what voters want. Republican obstructionism in Congress combined with a lack of Congressional Democratic unity has stalled critical investment in infrastructure and economic development. McAuliffe and others have expressed concern that a lack of successful legislation is dampening enthusiasm. Congress might pass an infrastructure bill before Nov. 2, but it could be too late to help McAuliffe.
Furthermore, conversations with independents or moderate Democrats in the northern Virginia suburbs, which are crucial for McAuliffe, often reveal frustration with politics. Many northern Virginia moderates express concern about extremism within the Republican Party but also annoyance with progressive Democrats who they see as insisting on ideological purity at the cost of tangible progress.
Many parents in northern Virginia were deeply frustrated with school closures and the management of education during the pandemic, and the school boards in the region tend to be largely run by Democrats. These sentiments present problems for McAuliffe if moderate Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents do not show up to vote.
Meanwhile, the Republican base is enthusiastic and excited for the opportunity to vote against the Democrats. However, Youngkin also faces challenges. He has tried to appeal to the pro-Trump, Republican base, while also portraying himself as more moderate to the general electorate. This is a tricky line to walk, given Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin, the candidate’s statements of support for Trump, and many Virginian Republicans’ determination to demonstrate their allegiance to the former president in ways that complicate Youngkin’s attempt to appear moderate.
The Virginia governorship is one of the few significant elections before next year’s Congressional elections. As FiveThirtyEight has noted, Virginia historically has not been a particularly good bellwether for national politics.
However, several factors in this race could make it instructive. While politics used to depend more on state and local contexts, changes in US media and politics have nationalized political identities and issues. Also, negative partisanship is playing a major role in the race, with polls suggesting that voting against the opposite party is a key motivator for Democratic and especially Republican voters. Northern Virginia’s close proximity to Washington also tends to make national issues more relevant.
While politics used to depend more on state and local contexts, changes in US media and politics have nationalized political identities and issues.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
The core issues driving the race also are deeply divisive, national questions. These include how to respond to COVID-19, how to address education about race and history, and abortion. Voters’ views on Trump and Biden also are very influential. Even often more typically local issues, such as taxes and crime, have national resonance.
If McAuliffe wins, many observers will see it as a sign that the Democrats have a chance to keep majorities in Congress after next year’s elections. If Youngkin triumphs, it will reinforce Republican hopes of regaining control of Congress next year, especially given several other advantages in their favor.
Whatever the outcome, other politicians will draw lessons from the poll. For example, a Democratic victory in Virginia would convince many Democrats that linking their Republican competitors with Trump is a winning strategy. If Youngkin wins, Republicans will feel more confident about expressing support for Trump while still gaining votes from independents and moderates. Regardless, the race already demonstrates how state politics have become more national.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch