Covid, Critical Race Theory, and Virginia’s Biden Blues

Glenn Youngkin and Teddy McAuliffe
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
October 12, 2021

Every four years, a divided nation turns its lonely eyes to … the Virginia governor’s race. And by “the nation,” I really just mean bored political reporters, exhausted by the tedium of Washington policy-making and hungry for their next fix of real-world campaign action. Because who in Texas or Colorado or New Hampshire could possibly care about the next occupant of the Virginia Executive Mansion? Especially this year, when the two white guy dad candidates—Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin—aren’t exactly Coachella headliners. 

But let me say this, as a political reporter and proud son of Richmond: You should care about my esteemed commonwealth. Even if its days as a purebred swing state have passed, the governor’s race in Virginia always has a way of telling us what we need to know about the state of the electorate. Just look back at 2017, when an aging, moderate career politician defeated a Twitter-hyped candidate with progressive ideas in the Democratic primary by putting together a powerful coalition of Black voters and suburbanites who favored pragmatism over radical chic. That Democrat, Ralph Northam, then rode a tide of anti-Trump sentiment to a resounding victory, presaging the Democratic backlash to Donald Trump in the following year’s midterms. Northam somehow managed to win on Election Day despite the election eve consensus on “Morning Joe,” when the pundit panel solemnly agreed that Northam would lose—even though he was leading all the polls—because Republicans were braying about crime and Donna Brazile wrote a book criticizing the Democratic party or something. 

Yes, Virginia has it all: A nationalized race offering clues to the country’s political mood, a test of which party’s base is more motivated, a dash of clueless national punditry. There are two other elections next month, a governor’s race in New Jersey and a mayoral race in New York City, both of which are certain to be won by Democrats. Virginia is the only state this off-year that looks like a battleground state. With the possible exception of laid-off steelworkers, Virginia is home to almost every kind of voter that matters: Suburban moms and dads, inner-suburb millennials, outer-suburb churchgoers, veterans, Black voters both rural and urban, Hispanics, college and non-college whites, farmers, NASCAR fans, campus libs, gun nuts, abortion freaks, dudes who wear croakies and go to the “Rivah” in the summertime. 

Today’s Virginia is not the bellwether it was between 2005 and 2012, when it completed its long drift from red to purple to blue. By the time 2020 rolled around, Biden smoked Trump by 10 points in Virginia, giving new meaning to Sic Semper Tyrannis. But non-federal elections there have a different flavor. “What a lot of people miss is how different the electorate can be in an off-year versus a presidential,” said Tucker Martin, a Republican consultant in Richmond who worked for the state’s last G.O.P. governor, Bob McDonnell. “Obama won Virginia by six points in 2008, and then Bob McDonnell comes in the next year and wins the governor’s race by 17.” 

In the odd-numbered years following a presidential election, party strategists and reporters still look at the Virginia governor’s race for hints at how the public is responding to the party in power, just across the Potomac. Adding to the intrigue: The state prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms, so voters must choose new leadership every four years. And because of its proximity to Washington and its cross-section of voters, Virginia campaigns always seem to have a national flavor. Republicans lost Virginia in 2005 when George W. Bush was so toxic he was told to stay out of the state; the next year, Democrats won back the House and Senate in a wave. The reverse happened in 2009: Republicans won back the governor’s mansion in Richmond that year, opening the door to the Great Obama Shellacking of 2010. The only candidate in modern history to buck the trend was McAuliffe, in 2013, who won narrowly even as a Democrat sat in the White House. But history reared its head again in 2017. After Northam’s blowout win, fueled by suburban rage against Trump, it became clear that Republicans were screwed heading into 2018. 

This year, the polls in Virginia began tightening considerably once Biden’s approval ratings collapsed over the summer, suddenly putting Youngkin within reach of an upset win. Plenty of Republicans and Democrats in Virginia told me that for partisans, the avuncular Biden doesn’t inspire the same kind of singular rage that Trump and Obama did in past elections. Polls show that while Biden is unpopular, he’s still more popular than McAuliffe. The consensus, rather, is that Virginia is close because the Trump base is still engaged, while Democrats are either exhausted after years of high stakes elections, or simply disappointed with the listlessness and mixed messaging out of Washington. Either way, it’s a midterm election in miniature, with the out-of-power party frothing at the mouth, and the other team fretting about complacency. “At the end of the day, as a campaign, you want to be engaged in an environment when you have a tailwind and not a headwind, and Virginia Democrats are facing a 200-mile headwind coming from Washington, D.C.,” said Chris LaCivita, a longtime Republican strategist based in Richmond. 

McAuliffe knows it, too, which is why he’s calling in Barack Obama for a late campaign rally in the Richmond media market, where his support is softer than expected among suburbanites and Black voters. He’s also recently taken to criticizing Biden and Senate Democrats as they’ve struggled to pass their economic agenda in Congress. Democrats need their base to be excited, and McAuliffe needs something—anything—to point to before November 2. “We’re tired of the chitty-chat up in Washington,” McAuliffe said recently. “Get into a room and get this figured out,” he said. “You know, they’re paid to get up in Washington, get this done, and the frustration is why isn’t it done by now? 69 votes in the Senate two months ago. Get it done this week. Do your job.” The race is close, but McAuliffe is still favored to win, simply because of the math. Virginia has so many Democratic voters at this point that he can afford to bleed independents, lose some key counties, and still win. But Youngkin, casting himself as a businessman and relatable dad, has thus far balanced the difficult tightrope act of appeasing MAGA loyalists while somehow not scaring off suburbanites who were grossed out by Trump.

Six months ago, McAuliffe was bear-hugging Biden, and know-it-all Democrats on Twitter were scoffing at the suggestion that the race might be close. Today, well, expectations are being managed. “We are having an off-year election, like we always do in Virginia,” said state Democratic Chairwoman Susan Swecker. “We always know that after a presidential year, comparing last year to this year is like comparing apples to oranges. It’s just not the same.” The Virginia governor’s race, to quote Dan Rather, is hotter than a Laredo parking lot. Who wins will certainly matter to Virginians. But the race, too, will reveal a lot about the mood of the nation as the sun rises on next year’s midterm elections, because Virginia happens to look a lot like the rest of the country.

Here are four things to look out for as the race comes to a finish—even if you’ve never been to a Shad Planking.

Can Democrats Still Run Against Trump?

Back in 2007, gadfly Republican presidential candidate Jim Gilmore—another onetime Virginia governor—mocked his rival Rudy Giuliani’s campaign message as little more than “A noun, a verb and 9/11.” Most days, McAuliffe’s campaign feels like a noun, a verb and Donald Trump. From the moment Youngkin became the nominee, McAuliffe took to calling Youngkin “Glenn Trumpkin” all day, every day—so much so that CNN’s Dana Bash made fun of McAuliffe on live television over the weekend when he mentioned Trump’s name a full 18 times in their interview. 

“Trump isn’t on the ballot,” Swecker said. “Well, he is and he isn’t. He is ever-present in this gubernatorial race.” She is correct! Nearly all of McAuliffe’s ads have been negative, and a third of them have mentioned Trump—including his very first ad of the general election, which called Youngkin “a loyalist to Donald Trump.” On paper, it’s a useful strategy. Negative partisanship—harnessing backlash against the other party—is as much a motivator for voters these days as any proactive message or agenda. And in Virginia, especially among suburban women, Trump remains absolutely toxic. A recent Fox News poll found that 57 percent of voters in the commonwealth have an unfavorable view of the former president. On the Republican side, Youngkin needed Trump supporters to win the nomination—and he needs Trump supporters to turn out in November, too—which is why he has accommodated vaccine skeptics, called for an audit of 2020 voting machines, and accepted Trump’s endorsement. “Donald Trump represents so much of why I’m running,” Youngkin said back in May when he was trying to flex some right-wing street cred against his primary opponents. 

Polls now show that Youngkin’s voters are more fired up than McAuliffe’s—base enthusiasm in off years is always with the party out of power—so the Democrat has been name-dropping Trump in a bid to fire up his voters who are simply not as energized as they were four years ago, when Northam won his race by 9 points. Now, Democrats nervous about next year’s midterms are about to find out whether Screaming About Trump still works as a strategy for their base. 

“In 2017, the issue was literally just Donald Trump,” said Martin, the Republican consultant in Richmond. “But in this race, the dominating environmental factors are two-fold. First, Biden’s approval rating is sinking, and second, Trump is out of the White House and off Twitter. Youngkin just benefits from not having to answer for a Trump tweet every single day.” Meanwhile, despite being governor just four years ago, polls show McAuliffe doesn’t have much of a brand. Almost 30 percent of voters in a recent Monmouth poll had no opinion of him—and only 40 percent of Virginians had a favorable opinion. 

Without much of a message, The Macker is left with two arrows in his quiver. First, relying on party machinery that knows how to win after more than a decade in power. “There is some fatigue, but our voters are also tuning in and used to voting,” Swecker told me. “We know how to turn our vote out.” Second, McAuliffe is making the race about Trump, even if the Republican threat no longer feels as existential to Democrats as it did a year ago. But don’t tell that to the staffers writing copy for McAuliffe’s fundraising emails. “Virginia is Donald Trump’s first real shot at regaining relevance after his 2020 thumping,” said one of many that went out on Monday, this one “signed” by James Carville. “He’s already planning a run for re-election in 2024, and you’d better believe getting Glenn Youngkin elected this year is part of that plan.”

McAuliffe’s game plan is complicated by the fact that he’s not running against Bubba McInsurrection—he’s running against a guy doing a Mitt Romney impression. Youngkin has conservative ideas, but he doesn’t present a bogeyman culture warrior. He’s the former C.E.O. of the private equity firm Carlyle Group, who played basketball at Rice and attended Harvard Business School. Remember: During the California recall, Gavin Newsom was finally able to motivate lackadaisical Democrats down the home stretch when Larry Elder emerged as his likeliest replacement. Elder was a MAGA true believer, and Newsom made sure Democrats knew it. In Youngkin, McAuliffe simply doesn’t have the same wackadoodle foil. If he and Youngkin weren’t rival politicians, they look like they’d probably be pals, two dads swapping trust and estate lawyer recos on a golf course in McLean or coaching a youth basketball team, instilling in their players the importance of a good bounce pass. 

“The problem is that Youngkin looks like this nice business guy you would have over for dinner,” Martin told me. “The Trump stuff doesn’t pass the smell test.” Democrats all over the country will be watching to see if McAuliffe can effectively make Youngkin scarier than he actually is.

Do Voters Care About Critical Race Theory?

If McAuliffe is testing the effectiveness of a Trump-centric campaign in the Biden era, then Youngkin is testing whether a Republican in khakis can mimic Trump’s culture war brio to similar effect. It’s difficult to imagine Mr. HBS Man actually giving a shit about critical race theory in his own life, but Youngkin is deploying it as a scare tactic nonetheless—in a state that prides itself on its public education system. “We have watched critical race theory come into our schools and try to divide our children,” Youngkin said a few months ago on Fox News. “Critical race theory is not an academic curriculum. It is a political agenda to divide people,” he said. “What they are trying to do is indoctrinate our kids.” 

Of course, critical race theory doesn’t actually exist in any public school curriculum in Virginia, in any of the commonwealth’s largest counties. But that hasn’t stopped Facebook-and-Fox-addled parents from showing up to local school board meetings and harassing administrators about it. And so Youngkin has aligned himself with that conservative grassroots fury, railing about “CRT” on conservative talk radio and vowing to remove it from K-12 education in Virginia, to some political effect. 

In their last debate, during a back-and-forth over what should be taught in public schools, Youngkin said, “I believe parents should be in charge of our kids’ education.” A few moments later, McAuliffe stumbled into the biggest gaffe of his campaign, saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Needless to say, telling parents to butt out after the difficulties of pandemic home-schooling wasn’t a good look. Democrats are typically more trusted in polls on the matter of education, but McAuliffe suddenly looks weaker on an issue that’s routinely ranked among the most important for Virginians. 

Back in the closing days of the 2017 race, a Monmouth poll found that Northam, the Democrat, had a 14-point edge over his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie on the question of who is more trusted on education. Today? McAuliffe only has a 4-point edge over Youngkin on the same question, according to the same pollster. Critical race theory isn’t the only reason, but the issue has both enlivened the Republican base and provided Youngkin an opening to talk about education during the campaign, an issue that customarily favors Democrats.

A Real Test of Vaccine Politics

Youngkin is now within a few points of becoming the first Republican statewide office-holder in Virginia in 12 years. But he’s still obligated to genuflect to the Trump base, the voters he needs to surge for him in November. So he’s doing what a lot of other Republican politicians are doing these days—encouraging Republicans to get vaccinated against COVID-19 like he did, but telling them that it’s a choice, not a necessity. Youngkin even cut a PSA-style ad saying, “It’s your right to make your own choice, and I respect that.” McAuliffe—like Biden and California Gov. Gavin Newsom before him—has seized on the issue, tagging Youngkin as an anti-vaxxer. McAuliffe’s bet is that both Democratic base voters and independents want the pandemic to end and are firmly on the side of enforcing mask rules, testing requirements, and vaccine mandates for businesses and public properties. 

National Democrats have gone all in on this concept, especially after watching the disastrous summer Delta surges in Florida and Texas, and Newsom’s romp in the California recall, in which he warned down the stretch that Republicans would slow the state’s vaccine push. Biden soon followed with a vaccine mandate for large businesses. Polls show that voters are mostly on the side of Democrats, but it’s also situational, especially in Virginia, which is a very different state than deep blue California. Virginia voters support vaccine mandates for school staffers or employees who come into work, a recent Washington Post poll found, but they also oppose vaccine mandates for entering indoor restaurants or bars, policies recently implemented in more liberal enclaves like New York City and Los Angeles. 

Vaccine mandates might also be a tougher sell among Black Virginians, bedrock voters that Democrats need to engage. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, one of McAuliffe’s closest confidantes, spoke carefully when asked about the dynamic in his majority-Black city. “I don’t think we should be demonizing the unvaccinated,” he told me. “I don’t think that Black Virginians are resistant to the vaccine. I just think they are going to be a little slower on the uptake on vaccines. It just takes a little more time and education to reach some of these individuals.” Nationally, the percentage of Black voters who “strongly support” Biden dropped by almost 20 points between July and September, Pew found. A subsequent Morning Consult poll might have scratched at one reason: Biden’s support among Black voters fell 12 percentage points after he announced his vaccine mandate, driven by a 17-point drop among unvaccinated Black voters. 

Virginia will also test something else about vaccine polls generally: Why are Democrats still so quick to trust them? “The thing that hangs over this, and I think Virginia will tell us something here, is how much pollsters have corrected the problems from 2020,” said Dan Pfeiffer, the former communications director for President Obama. “Because the people least likely to respond to surveys are going to be the unvaccinated. It’s going to be people with low social trust. Is polling, this many years later, still giving us a distorted view of either the popularity of these mandates or the backlash against them? Everything in 2020 said Trump did a terrible job with his messaging about COVID and lockdowns, that there’s no audience for that. Well, the results suggested there was more of an audience than we thought, including among some traditionally Democratic voters in certain parts of the country. And I just don’t know what to expect here. Are we repeating the same error? If we just assume it’s as good as the polls say it is, then we have truly learned nothing from 2020.”

Whither the ‘Burbs?

In the Trump era, elections were won and lost in America’s suburbs, as college-educated whites who once voted Republican turned away from Trump and voted Democrat. The 2017 Virginia governor’s race was a prequel to the story. With Trump in the White House, Northam won with massive turnout in the heavily Democratic northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., and the counties around Richmond, which have drifted blue over the last decade. Northam won white college graduates, and among white voters, he outperformed Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama—and Terry McAuliffe, back in 2013. 

Similar patterns played out around the country in 2018 and then in 2020, as college education revealed itself as the new dividing line in American politics. Trump won white suburban voters by 16 points in 2016, but his support among those voters badly eroded by 2020, when he only won them by 4 points. The suburbs are where McAuliffe should have a built-in advantage, even if the campaign feels like it’s been sputtering. “The fundamentals, environment and momentum are all with Glenn,” one well-connected Richmond Republican told me. “But who knows? Maybe Virginia has just turned into Maryland in the last 10 years.” 

The bulk of the state’s votes will come in later in the evening on Election Night, all from big blue-leaning suburban counties outside of Washington, D.C.: Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William, and Loudon. Fairfax alone is home to about 1-in-7 of the state’s registered voters, so even if Youngkin turns out a rabid Republican base across the commonwealth, it might not be enough to overcome the volume of Democratic voters in northern Virginia. Stoney, the McAuliffe confidant, reminded me of election night in 2013, when McAuliffe won by 2.5 points—a much closer race than the polls had predicted. It wasn’t until northern Virginia reported that McAuliffe claimed victory. “We should expect a night where we are going to wait and see what happens in large localities like Fairfax County,” Stoney told me.

Republicans, though, are hoping that Youngkin can cut into Democratic margins in the ever-so-slightly more purple exurban counties—Loudoun and Prince William, home to far more big box stores and churches than the bluer and more expensive inner suburbs closer to Washington. One Republican I spoke with speculated that a new partisan dividing line could emerge after the dust settles, in which Youngkin wins exurban precincts while McAuliffe romps in the more liberal inner suburbs. Still, Youngkin needs an inside straight to win. He must turn out a rabid Republican base, win a majority of independents, and pray for depressed Democratic turnout. “Democrats can win elections now in Virginia just by turning out their base,” LaCivita told me. “But Republicans have to win their base and turn out a majority of independents. It’s not easy but it’s doable in this environment, and the Youngkin campaign has done a good job of putting itself in a position of opportunity.”

Even if you’ve never been to Virginia and could care less about the definition of Wahoo or Hokie, the suburbs there are worth watching for one crucial 2022 tea leaf: how college-educated men vote. Suburban women famously became the bedrock of Democratic vote performance in the Trump era, but that shift began during the 2016 race, before Trump was elected. Biden and Hillary Clinton received roughly the same degree of support among college-educated women—they stayed in the Democratic fold. It was college-educated men that emerged as the true swing voters of 2020. Clinton won them by only 3 points in 2016, but Biden won them by 10 last year. Do they move back to Republicans, or at least to Youngkin this time around? “I don’t think we are getting suburban women back,” said one Republican consultant in the state. “But suburban men—they might be gettable, and that could really help us.”