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All politics isn’t local anymore

Elections are increasingly nationalized: Just look at Virginia

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, seen here at a 2019 rally for Joe Biden, finds himself in a tight race for the governorship even though Virginia has been trending Democratic for years, Rothenberg writes.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, seen here at a 2019 rally for Joe Biden, finds himself in a tight race for the governorship even though Virginia has been trending Democratic for years, Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — I’ve spent plenty of time over the past three decades reminding national political reporters and political junkies that off-year gubernatorial races don’t tell us a hell of a lot about what will happen in the next midterm election or the next presidential contest. 

State and local races, after all, tend to be about state and local issues and the appeal of state and local candidates.

But this year’s contests in the Commonwealth of Virginia feel different, don’t they? Nationally, the rise in straight-ticket voting reflects the political polarization everywhere, which could result in more “nationalized” elections.

Virginia has been trending Democratic for the last few years — Democrat Joe Biden won it by 10 points in 2020, and the GOP nominee for president has not carried the state since 2004 — but the party in the White House invariably has had trouble in Virginia’s gubernatorial contests, which occur during off-off years (that is, the year after a presidential election). 

Those two trends collide this year, so it is difficult not to regard the outcome in the Virginia governor’s race next month as some sort of verdict about which trend is stronger.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee this cycle, hopes to successfully nationalize the contest, which is why he has spent so much time painting Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin as an ally of the 2020 Republican presidential nominee, the always controversial Donald Trump.

But doing so hasn’t been easy, since Youngkin started as a blank slate. He doesn’t have a record to attack, comes from the business community and lives in voter-rich Northern Virginia — an area that is crucial to McAuliffe.

Youngkin needs to benefit from strong Republican turnout, some of which comes from the grassroots’ loyalty to Trump. But Youngkin doesn’t want to be defined by the former president in parts of the state — like Northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs — where Trump is a pariah. So he’s trying to fudge things when he can.

McAuliffe has had problems energizing Democrats, which is why he has major national party figures such as former President Barack Obama, first lady Jill Biden, and former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams coming into the state to give his candidacy a boost and to make the argument to suburban and Black voters in the commonwealth that Youngkin is merely a smooth-talking stand-in for Trump.

Polls show the contest is very competitive, and everyone seems to agree that turnout will decide the outcome.

While most surveys show Youngkin trailing McAuliffe by a few points, GOP strategists have been hyping dubious polls showing the Republican ahead, and even Democratic activists acknowledge privately that Republicans have had an enthusiasm advantage for much of the race. 

If Youngkin wins, Republicans will be euphoric, and Trump will claim credit. 

Democrats, on the other hand, will be dispirited and see the result as evidence that some of the party’s core constituencies, including younger voters and Blacks, never engaged. Many will conclude (reasonably so) that Biden’s mediocre poll numbers proved to be a drag on McAuliffe’s already sluggish effort.

That would lead to more finger-pointing and in-fighting among Democrats — something the party doesn’t need right now as it debates key tenets of the Biden agenda in Congress. 

If McAuliffe wins, Republicans will brush off the loss, pointing to Biden’s comfortable win in the state in 2020. But underneath that complacency, even Republicans would have to admit that a McAuliffe victory would suggest that Trump remains a liability for the GOP among many voters and that nationalizing the midterm elections around the former president is a viable strategy for Democrats in 2022.

If Trump had been reelected in 2020, this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race would be a laugher. The Democratic nominee would be coasting to a solid victory, warning that the only way to check Trump would be by electing Democrats to statewide and local office. 

But Biden’s victory changed that, and the GOP wisely picked a nominee who has deep pockets and no political record. The burden is on Democrats in Virginia this year and nationally in 2022 to convince Democratic voters that although Trump’s name is not on the ballot, every election is a referendum on him.

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