Virginia’s race for governor is a test for Democrats’ — and Trump’s — staying power

Updated October 28, 2021 at 10:25 AM ET

Alan Mullis was so flattered that Republican Glenn Youngkin paid a pit stop in McKenney, Va., a town an hour south of Richmond — or as Mullis puts it, “the middle of boondocks” — that he says he delayed a chemotherapy treatment for his leukemia to see Youngkin.

“That’s how important it is to me to meet Glenn Youngkin,” the 75-year-old Mullis said. “Thank God for somebody like him running for office.”

Republicans like Mullis are energized by polls showing a neck-and-neck race between Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe a week out from election day. Virginia’s off-year elections are often seen as a proxy for national mood in a state President Joe Biden won by ten points. The race has tightened as President Biden’s approval ratings have dropped to the lowest point since he took office.

Mullis, a former police officer, likes Youngkin’s backing of law enforcement. But for many GOP stalwarts gathered at the Flat Rock Country Store, it’s as much about the mood as much as the message. Youngkin, a first-time politician, delivers celebrity energy in a fleece vest and cowboy boots. Supporters sign his tour bus and snap photos.

Democrats like Biden say Youngkin is just putting a suburban-dad sheen on the policies of former President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly endorsed the businessman, and in a Tweet late Wednesday, a spokesperson said that Trump would also campaign for him in Virginia. The Youngkin campaign did not respond to requests to comment, but Youngkin previously said he had no plans to campaign with the former president.

Youngkin embraced Trump early in his campaign before pivoting to win over more moderate voters. Youngkin has also campaigned alongside supporters like Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who regularly repeats misinformation about the last election and is now making similar unsubstantiated claims in this race.

“Extremism can come in many forms,” Biden said at a rally for McAuliffe on Tuesday. “It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile in a fleece vest.”

McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-2018, has brought a slew of high-profile supporters to hammer home the message that a vote for Youngkin is a vote for Trump. Former President Barack Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris, and even musician Dave Matthews have made recent appearances in the commonwealth.

Youngkin rejects those comparisons. “If you look at the ballot today, what it says on it is Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe,” the former private equity CEO says to cheers at his stop in McKenney. (A third-party candidate, activist Princess Blanding, is also on the ballot).

For Democrats, the stakes are high. Losing Virginia would be a bad sign for next year’s midterms. They haven’t lost a statewide election in the commonwealth since 2009. McAuliffe says he always knew it would be close.

“I remind you for 44 straight years, the party that wins the White House, the other party wins the governor’s mansion,” McAuliffe said in an interview. “I’m the only guy to break it.”

McAuliffe was also a wealthy businessman and first-time politician when he won the governor’s race in 2013 after a failed attempt in 2009. He had found success as a well-connected Democratic fundraiser known for back-slapping and showy gestures, like wrestling an alligator to win a donation for Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign. This time, he’s running on his record, touting experience he said voters want to see in a pandemic: “I was governor before, got us out of a horrible financial mess, created a record amount of 200,000 new jobs and made the state open and welcoming,” he says.

Youngkin has directed his closing message at parents. He channeled conservative outrage over critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia schools. He often repeats the claims in daily appearances on Fox News, though he’s much less available to local press.

This week, Youngkin launched a new ad featuring a conservative activist who said her son suffered nightmares after he read Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s Beloved in his AP English class. McAuliffe twice vetoed the so-called “Beloved bill” championed by the activist. It would have allowed parents to request new readings for their child if the original included “sexually explicit content.” McAuliffe’s campaign handed out copies of the book at the Biden event on Tuesday and has called Youngkin’s focus on the book “racist”.

Youngkin denies he’s getting into cultural wars. “It’s not Republicans against Democrats anymore,” he says. “This is Virginia and standing up for our rights, and particularly for the rights of our kids.”

For some Democrats, the list of worries includes access to abortion and the pandemic. Two volunteers for the party — Elizabeth Balaschak and Gene Miles — kill time at their table outside an early voting location by discussing the impact they might have on the race. Balaschak just moved to the Richmond area from Florida, drawn by Virginia’s increasingly blue tint. The backlash to Trump in these suburbs helped Democrats flip the state legislature. They passed a slew of laws, like raising the minimum wage and easing rules on abortion.

“My concern is if it starts to go toward Florida — I know a lot of people who moved out of Florida over the last few years because of the way the state is going,” Balaschak says.

Balaschak’s fellow volunteer, Miles, has noticed lower Democratic enthusiasm this year compared to the Trump era, when attendance at local party committees surged. She’s watched Virginia see-saw between parties since she got involved in 1976, calling the state “a bluish shade of purple.”

Over 850,000 people have already cast early ballots, and some models show Democrats with an edge. Both sides argue the stakes are higher than ever. Next week’s election will show whether their voters agree.

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