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Virginia: If Terry McAuliffe Loses, “Hit the F---ing Panic Button”

If Glenn Youngkin wins the governor’s race, will it really be such a disaster for Democrats? In a word, yes.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe waits to speak at a rally on October 30 in Hampton, Virginia.

In the most likely scenarios of whatever happens in the Virginia governor’s race, Democrats need to pay close attention, according to interviews with a range of Democratic strategists, veterans of Virginia politics, and polling experts. 

That’s because the most likely scenarios for the outcome of the off-year election are that either Democrat Terry McAuliffe wins by just a few points or Republican Glenn Youngkin wins by just a few points. According to respective operatives with knowledge of their data, both campaigns’ internal polling showed slim margins separating the two candidates. Democrats I talked with expected McAuliffe would win by a few points, while Youngkin’s internals showed him up by about 3 percentage points. 

Off-year elections always get an inordinate amount of attention, partially because there are so few other elections to pay attention to. But this time Democrats say the hype really does matter. A number of strategists I reached out to for this story declined an interview with basically the same explanation: They didn’t have anything positive to predict, so they would rather keep their mouths shut.

“I mean, look, the stakes are very large,” said former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor four years ago. “It is clearly a momentum-setting and term-setting election for the midterms, as it always is. I think that if the Democrats win, it is a pretty massive setback for the Republicans because, by historical trends, they should win this thing by half a dozen points.” 

But if Republicans win, it will fulfill persistent Democratic fears strategists have been nurturing all year: that Democratic enthusiasm is dangerously low. For the Virginia governor’s race that’s especially dangerous, since the state’s election politics are linked to national politics more than other states. So congressional Democrats’ struggle to pass their infrastructure bill could combine with that depressed enthusiasm and weigh down McAuliffe.

“I strongly believe that if Build Back Better had passed two weeks ago, Terry would’ve won this thing running away,” Perriello said. “I think the lesson here is Democrats will need to be both anti–Trump and Trumpism and pro–delivering results for people.”

It didn’t have to be like this. Virginia is a state that’s been trending blue for a while now. The state hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since George W. Bush in 2004, and Democratic margins have been increasing (Joe Biden won it by double digits). Within the state, Democrats control the governor’s mansion, the attorney general’s office, the secretary of state’s office, and both chambers in the state’s legislature. Both of Virginia’s Senate seats are held by incumbent Democrats who haven’t been in any serious electoral peril for some time now—even after a presidential election where Senator Tim Kaine was on the losing ticket.

But gridlock in Congress has acted as a depressant for Democratic voters and activists. Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives has desperately worked to cobble together an infrastructure deal that would (among other things) offer McAuliffe at least a last-minute boost. On Monday, Senator Joe Manchin once again quashed those hopes when he held a press conference saying he needed to study the fiscal impact of the budget bill before deciding whether he’ll vote for it.

If anything, Virginia’s election results could act as an especially accurate herald of the midterms and the next presidential election. “There is this sort of sense that, I don’t know, maybe ‘disappointment’ is too strong a word, but of not meeting expectations. I think that’s a national problem, and Virginia’s just the first up to measure that,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. He added “Virginia is increasingly becoming a state [where] elections in the off-year are nationalized.”

So if McAuliffe loses, Belcher said, “hit the fucking panic button, because all hell’s going to break loose. And I think we’re headed for a midterm disaster the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.”

Similarly, J. Miles Coleman, an associate editor at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said, “Even if McAuliffe ends up winning by one or two points, well, this is a state that Biden won by 10 points, so if I were a Democratic strategist I’d be on high alert, even if McAuliffe ends up winning.” 

Outside of the outcome, the gubernatorial election also offers a road map for ways Democrats and Republicans might campaign in the midterms. McAuliffe relentlessly hit Youngkin on any and all associations with Donald Trump. Youngkin shifted from a law-and-order message similar to the one Republican Ed Gillespie ran on in his ill-fated campaign for Virginia governor to focusing on education, scaring parents about critical race theory, which is not in fact taught in Virginia public schools, and attacking one of the most celebrated American novels of the last half-century (Toni Morrison’s Beloved) because it once offended a white male high schooler who now works for the Republican Party.

“I think his relentless focus on education has helped to shift the narrative from vaccines to [schools],” Coleman said. Instead of having to parry attacks by McAuliffe and Democrats on his obtuse stance on vaccines (he’s taken the vaccine but views it as a personal choice), Youngkin has been mostly playing offense for weeks.

Jennifer Holdsworth, a Democratic strategist who has run races in Virginia and expects McAuliffe to win, said that either way, Democrats will need to look at the outcome of the election and the problems with letting it become about the culture war. Holdsworth said: “You see that the only time Republicans win, as of late, is when they make an issue out of these cultural issues, because they understand that people may not understand that issue out of the box, and they capitalize,” Holdsworth said. She added that Democrats need to go on the offensive on such issues early on “because when the Republicans say ‘culture war,’ what they really mean is anti–civil rights, and we need to frame it that way.”

And maybe that focus will backfire, Perriello suggested. “The school board politics, they could be the Confederate politics and M.S.-13 of this year—something that does at least as much to upset our base as theirs,” Perriello said. “Or maybe they’ve struck more of a chord.”  

But there’s a flip side to the apprehensiveness Democrats are feeling. It may be close, and Youngkin may be running a smart (if cynical) race, but it’s still Virginia, a state that’s trended reliably blue for a while now. “I think, structurally, a Republican needs lightning in a bottle now to win Virginia,” Belcher said. But, he added, that might happen: “Republicans will not have a better chance in the next decade to take Virginia than right now. They got a perfect candidate—this sort of outsider business guy who’s running as a different kind of Republican with a different kind of politics.”

On a broader level, this race will be used as an indicator of a few different things: whether Democratic legislative gridlock will have an overpowering ripple effect at the ballot box, whether a message focused on critical race theory and education is a winning message for Republicans, and whether Democrats can use Trump against any candidate anywhere. On election eve, Trump had a closed press tele-rally for Youngkin.

Beyond the governor’s race, Democratic control of lower-ticket statewide elected offices like attorney general look safe. There’s also a coattails feature of this election. Democrats have a three-seat advantage in the state Senate and a 10-seat advantage in the House of Delegates—not huge majorities, in either case. If Republicans somehow pull off retaking both houses, #DemsInDisarray will be a far too mild description of the state of play.