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McAuliffe Tries to Tie Youngkin to Trump in Campaign’s Waning Days
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McAuliffe Tries to Tie Youngkin to Trump in Campaign’s Waning Days

To combat waning enthusiasm among Democratic voters, McAuliffe keeps the spotlight on the former president.

FAIRFAX, Virginia—With just two weeks left of voting in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe is hoping that campaigning alongside a team of high profile Democrats will boost enthusiasm among voters ahead of November 2.

McAuliffe maintains a slight polling lead over his Republican challenger Glenn Youngkin, a first-time candidate and former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group. But the race is tight. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its forecast from “Lean Democrat” to “Tossup,” and FiveThirtyEight’s polling average currently gives McAuliffe a 2.9 percent lead over Youngkin (48.5 percent to 45.6 percent.)

In a last-minute effort to get Virginia Democrats to the polls, McAuliffe campaigned last weekend alongside voting rights activist and failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Fairfax County, Virginia. “I’m here from Georgia. We don’t have an election this year for the governor, but I know what happens here matters across this country,” Abrams told a crowd of fully masked rally attendees on Sunday. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and former President Barack Obama will also join him on the campaign trail this month.

Once a solid red state, Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican candidate statewide since 2009. The commonwealth’s sitting governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general are all Democrats.

But in many ways, this year’s gubernatorial election has become a referendum on Joe Biden. Nearly every single Virginia gubernatorial candidate who has run against the president’s party since 1977 has ended up winning the general election. (McAuliffe, who was elected in 2013 while Obama was in the White House, is the only candidate who has been able to break that trend.)

With Biden’s domestic agenda facing major gridlock in Congress, polls suggest that waning enthusiasm among Democratic voters could dampen turnout ahead of Election Day. According to a recent CBS News/YouGov poll conducted October 4-11, 50 percent of likely Youngkin voters surveyed said they are enthusiastic to vote compared to 44 percent of likely McAuliffe voters. Registered Republicans who hadn’t voted at the time of the survey were also 12 percentage points more likely to say they “definitely” plan on heading to the polls.

Might voter exhaustion be responsible for this trend? “In Virginia, you have elections every single year,” said Koran Saines, a Democratic voter from Loudoun County, at Sunday’s campaign event. “So as soon as you’re done with one election, here comes another election.” 

Grassroots activists are trying to combat voter fatigue among Democrats by keeping the spotlight on Trump, who lost Virginia by 10 points in 2020. “[Youngkin] puts on a good face on TV, but I am concerned about the way he’s kind of played footsie with Trump,” said Jim McBride, a Democratic voter from Fairfax, Virginia, who volunteered for Sunday’s event. “In many respects, I feel like he’s pandering to the [former] president’s base in a way that I think is over the line.”

Trump’s lingering hold over the Republican Party has forced Youngkin to attempt an awkward balancing act. He can’t win without at least some support from the moderates and independents who live in Northern Virginia’s wealthy, diverse, and well-educated suburbs, which have turned increasingly blue in recent years. But he can’t afford to rankle the majority of Virginia Republicans who still see Trump as the leader of the GOP.

Since winning the Republican nomination in May, Youngkin has made a conscious effort to keep Trump off the campaign trail and avoid even mentioning the former president’s name at rallies. 

Youngkin might want to avoid associating his name with Trump’s, but McAuliffe is not going to let him off the hook so easily. Last week Steve Bannon headlined a “Take Back Virginia Rally,” nominally on Youngkin’s behalf, where Trump called in and attendees pledged allegiance to a flag displayed near the Capitol on January 6. Youngkin did not attend the event and said it was “weird and wrong” to pledge allegiance to such a flag. But McAuliffe criticized him for not responding more forcefully.

To make matters worse for Youngkin, the Democratic National Committee flew a banner over Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort this week that read, “Why won’t Youngkin let Trump campaign in VA?”

The Republican candidate has taken advantage of the ongoing debate over critical race theory and parental input into curriculum decisions in K-12 schools, two issues that have become a major flashpoint for suburban parents around the country but particularly in Virginia. During a debate last month, Youngkin reminded voters that McAuliffe once vetoed a bill that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of any reading assignments that contained “sexually explicit” material.

Youngkin was rewarded with the soundbite he was looking for. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during the debate.

Unlike McAuliffe, whose campaign has focused almost entirely on COVID-19, abortion, and Trump, Youngkin has zeroed in on kitchen table issues like K-12 education, tax reform, and public safety. “Every day we see that Virginia is just less safe than it used to be,” Youngkin told a crowd of roughly 15 sheriffs and deputies at a police week campaign event in McLean, Virginia last Thursday. 

The parent-centric focus of Youngkin’s campaign has also enthused the many Virginia Republicans who see K-12 education as their No. 1 priority in this year’s gubernatorial contest. “You see the opponent of Mr. Youngkin attacking schools, wanting government to basically control what our young’uns are learning with no parental input whatsoever,” Washington County Sheriff Blake Andis told The Dispatch at Thursday’s event.

But first-time voter Matthew Savage, a self-described “lifelong Democrat” from Falls Church, Virginia, says Youngkin’s K-12 policy proposals will take Virginia backward and “hurt” public school students like him. “[Youngkin] wants school choice, which is really just another way of saying he wants to take the money away from public education and send it into private schools,” said Savage, who attended Sunday’s Stacey Abrams event on his 18th birthday.

As the race comes to a close, Democratic political operatives warn that this race is a key bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterms. “Here in Virginia, you have the chance to set the stage,” Abrams told voters at Sunday’s event. “Do we go in the direction of the future? Or do we regress to a past that is dark and bitter and mean and does not believe in all of us?”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.