5 Things that could decide Virginia election (and 2022): Biden, Trump, culture wars and more

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WASHINGTON – Political professionals across the country are going to school this week, looking for guidance to the 2022 nationwide elections by studying the results of a single political race: The Virginia gubernatorial contest.

Voting patterns in the election between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin will provide clues on how to approach 2022 campaigns that will decide control of Congress and governor’s offices in big states like Florida, Texas, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

“There are things to be learned from this race, regardless of the outcome,” said Nadia Brown, professor of government and chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Georgetown University.

The Virginia gubernatorial race is one of several races on the ballot Tuesday, including a governor’s contest in New Jersey. The Virginia gubernatorial race has drawn more attention in part because of its proximity to the Washington, D.C., media, and in part because of its history.

The 1993 win by Republican Georgia Allen reflected voter backlash against President Bill Clinton and the Democrats. One year later, the GOP won control of the U.S. House and Senate.

Four years ago, Democrat Ralph Northam won the governor’s race as voters expressed their displeasure with new President Trump. The Democrats won control of the U.S. House in the 2018 midterm elections and control of the Senate after the 2020 elections.

Here are five things people are looking at:

The Donald Trump Card

Members of both parties are anxious to see how many votes Republicans might lose through association with Trump, who lost Virginia in both of his presidential elections. Last year, Biden defeated Trump in Virginia by ten percentage points.

Gallery: Virginia governor’s race remains close ahead of election day

Watch: Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin have two different visions for Virginia’s future

McAuliffe has based much of his gubernatorial campaign on Trump’s unpopularity. He has cast Youngkin as a “Trump wannabe” and said the former businessman will push Trump-like economic policies that favor the wealthy and social policies that discriminate against people of color.

No one yet knows if this will work. While Virginia has become a more Democratic state over the past decade – McAuliffe himself won the governor’s race in 2013 – the current contest is too close to call, according to a spate of recent polls. TheRealClear Politics website average of recent polls gives Youngkin a very slight lead, well within the margins of error.

Political analysts and Republicans have their own questions about how the Trump factor will play out in Virginia, the most important being: Will hard-core Trump voters show up to vote for a moderate figure like Youngkin?

The Republican candidate is using some Trump issues – tax cuts, de-regulation, parental rights in education – but has kept Trump himself at arms length. Youngkin has not held campaign events with Trump, as McAuliffe has with President Biden.

“Can you still get Trump voters out when Trump is not on the ballot,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors’ editor for The Cook Political Report.

For his part, Trump says he and his voters will decide Youngkin’s fate. He also denies any friction with Youngkin, saying in a written statement Monday that “we get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies.”

What About Biden?

In years past, the unpopularity of the current president – whether it was Bill Clinton or Donald Trump – has hurt his party’s gubernatorial nominee in Virginia.

This week, Democrats will be looking to see if, or how much, Biden’s negative ratings hurt McAuliffe. In an NBC News poll released Sunday, only 42% of adults said they approved of Biden’s job performance, down 7 percentage points from August.

More: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump: The other Virginia governor’s race

During a virtual rally with supporters last month, McAuliffe told backers that “we are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington, as you know. The President is unpopular today unfortunately here in Virginia, so we got to plow through.”

McAuliffe later downplayed his comments about the president, telling CNN that “it’s not dragging me down.”

Still, McAuliffe has urged fellow Democrats in Washington to pass major infrastructure and economic legislationto prove to Virginia voters that Democrats can get things done.

As they seek to win control of Congress, Republicans next year are expected to use Biden to bash congressional Democrats – a strategy they will amp up if Youngkin defeats McAuliffe on Tuesday.

“If McAuliffe loses, people will attempt to pin it on Biden,” pollster Frank Luntz said. “And they will have some justification.”

Jatia Wrighten, an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said mid-term elections like the ones next year are often “a check on the president’s power. It is common for a president’s party to lose seats.”

Black voters

Strong support from Black voters is a major reason Virginia has trended Democratic in recent elections and will be a major factor in the current race.

“We have seen historically that the Black vote – especially in Virginia – makes the difference in who wins,” Wrighten said. “The Democrats know that.”

Campaign officials in 2022, and beyond, will study the effectiveness of McAuliffe’s get-out-the-Black-vote project.  

The strategy has included targeted television ads, radio spots, social media posts, voter registration drives at Black colleges and event featuring high-profile Black leaders like former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris.

More: Barack Obama stumps for Terry McAuliffe as tight Va. governor’s race worries Democrats

Hala Ayala vs. Winsome Sears: Virginia’s next lieutenant governor will make history

The Virginia election will also have something to say about the viability of Black candidates in a most white electorate: Democrat Hala Ayala and Republican Winsome Sears are trying to become the first woman of color to win election to the lieutenant governor post.

Suburban voters

The Youngkin campaign has spent much of its time appealing to a special kind of suburban voter: Moderate-to-conservative people who voted for Biden because they couldn’t stomach Trump.

Many political analysts believe Biden won the 2020 presidential election in the suburbs. That’s why Youngkin and McAuliffe have focused on the areas around the city of Richmond and in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C., and why political professionals will be studying the success or failure of their suburban strategies.

Voting in the burbs: Can Republicans reclaim suburban voters turned off by Donald Trump?

“The ultimate goal for a candidate like Youngkin is to energize the Trump base while not alienating suburban soft Republicans and independents,” said GOP strategist Tim Miller.

Culture wars: COVID, schools, abortion

Elections are often decided by issues of the moment. In the Virginia race, political analysts are looking to assess the impact of cultural disputes that are roiling the nation, including abortion, education policies and COVID vaccines.

McAuliffe has hit Youngkin repeatedly over his opposition to government mandates that people be vaccinated against COVID-19, saying the Republican’s position puts lives at risk.

Youngkin has said individuals should be allowed to make their own decisions about COVID. That includes parents making choices for their children, one of the flashpoints of fervent disputes with school boards in Virginia.

More: How this suburban school board became the hottest issue in the Virginia governor’s race

The Republican candidate has taken up a number pf parental protests against school boards over items ranging from mask mandates to trans students to the teaching of race in schools. 

“Education is what Youngkin has been banking on the final weeks here,” Taylor said, an issue aimed at “suburbs and exurbs where Republicans lost ground in the Trump years.”

The Virginia race will also say something about abortion, an issue likely to be big in gubernatorial races in places like Florida, Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

As the Supreme Court considers cases on the constitutionality of state laws that effectively ban most abortions, McAuliffe has said Youngkin plans to pursue a similar law in Virginia.

During the campaign, Youngkin was caught on tape telling a supporter that he and a Republican legislator could “go on offense” against abortion, but he didn’t want to discuss the topic on the campaign trail because it “won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

McAuliffe has said Youngkin is using racist and sexist dog whistles to appeal to Trump voters. “I’m just tired of him running everything down,” McAuliffe said on NBC’s Meet The Press, adding: “I’m a unifier. He’s a divider.”

In an interview last week on Fox News, Youngkin said: “This race is about our kids’ future, about Virginia’s future, and Terry McAuliffe doesn’t want to talk about it.” He later added: “And the entire nation is watching this.” 

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