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The Sweep: Can Youngkin Catch McAuliffe in Virginia?
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The Sweep: Can Youngkin Catch McAuliffe in Virginia?

McAuliffe retains a considerable advantage, but there is a reasonable if limited chance of an upset.

With Sarah out this week, we’ve got a short-and-sweet Sweep for you today.

Campaign Quick Hits

Father Time Runs Again: Senate Republicans got a piece of good news late last week, when Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley announced he intends to run for an eighth six-year term in 2022. Grassley, who was first elected to the Senate in 1981 and turned 88 this month, is the oldest and longest-tenured GOP senator currently serving. Despite a personal brand that can only be described as curmudgeonly—his regular tweets ranting about how the History Channel never shows any actual history are the stuff of legend—Grassley is a procedural rock in the Senate and a virtual lock in Iowa. The state’s been trending more comfortably red in recent years, but for Republicans trying to claw their way back to a Senate majority, the fewer places they need to play defense, the better. Next question: whether Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson will follow suit and commit to another race.

Ohio Food Fight: Another reason Mitch McConnell is breathing a sigh of relief over the Grassley news: This is not the sort of environment GOP leadership is eager to recruit new candidates for. Just look at the chaotic primaries that have already sprung up in the wake of other GOP retirements this cycle, of which the crown jewel is the race to replace outgoing Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio. Portman is a classic swing-state Republican, a comparative moderate who called the January 6 attack on the Capitol “an attack on democracy itself.” The two leading candidates to replace him, by contrast, are running a race based nearly entirely on who can do the most convincing imitation of Donald Trump. Josh Mandel, the state’s former treasurer, has undergone a personality transplant during his current run, which has focused primarily on supposedly base-thrilling platitudes like “The Palestinians are a people from a fictional land who hate everything we stand for as Christians, Jews, and Americans” and “Democrats are killed by the truth.” His chief rival, Hillbilly Elegy author and hedge-funder J.D. Vance, is trying to run in an “intellectual Trumpism” lane, running a campaign focused on class grievance against cultural and political elites. Mandel accuses Vance of being a closet NeverTrumper, and is currently polling ahead by about 20 points.

2024 Vibe Check: Politico’s Alex Isenstadt has an interesting piece today on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s effort to build a national political apparatus:

The Maryland governor, an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump, is lending his help to Republicans in states filled with suburban voters who bolted the party during the Trump era. Over the past few weeks, Hogan has campaigned for Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. This weekend, he was the keynote speaker at an Amelia Island, Fla., conference hosted by the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.

And next May, Hogan is set to speak at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum’s “Time for Choosing” series focused on the future of the Republican Party. The forum in Simi Valley, Calif., has drawn an array of would-be presidential candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Is there space on the 2024 stage for a guy like Larry Hogan? We’ve had our doubts. But it’s looking more and more like Hogan will shoot that shot or not shoot at all: “I really don’t have any desire to run for Senate in 2022. Being one of 100 people and arguing all day and getting nothing done just doesn’t have a big appeal for me.” 

Does Republican Glenn Youngkin have a shot at the governor’s seat in Virginia, a state that’s an increasingly hard needle for the GOP to thread? Chris has some thoughts:

Spinning 45s in Virginia’s Governor Race 

With five weeks until the end of the Virginia gubernatorial race and early voting well underway, Republican Glenn Youngkin is consistently polling just a handful of points behind Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Many in the GOP are excited about their chances of picking up the governor’s mansion in a mostly blue state. It would also send a strong signal about the direction of the national electorate heading into midterms next year—wiping away some of the memory of the party’s misadventure in the California recall.

So, is that reasoned optimism or wishful thinking?

The FiveThirtyEight average for the race puts McAuliffe up by about 3 points—47.2 percent to 44.3 percent. If 8 percent of voters really are undecided, that would definitely put Youngkin within striking distance. McAuliffe is essentially running as the incumbent since he is seeking a return to office after being term-limited in 2017, and his ally and fellow Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam is in office. A substantial undecided vote late in a contest tends to be bad news for the incumbent. If voters know you but still aren’t sure, that means the challenger has a chance. But if the polls are right, that would mean Youngkin would need something like 75 percent of the late deciders—not impossible, but a very high threshold.

Whatever the exact numbers really are, I think this is a pretty good frame for how to look at the race. McAuliffe retains a considerable advantage, but there is a reasonable if limited chance of an upset. That’s clear in the most recent useful poll of the race, out Monday from Monmouth University. The survey has McAuliffe up by 5 points—48 percent to 43 percent—with 7 percent undecided. This jibes with the university’s August poll and the rest of the surveys: Youngkin can close the gap, but needs to not only win bigly among the undecideds but also get them to the polls. Remember, the least likely “likely voter” is probably one who can’t make up his or her mind.

The bad news for Youngkin, though, is that this Monmouth poll tracks with the commensurate survey from the school in 2017 that also showed Northam up by 5 points against former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, who went on to lose by almost 9 points. Youngkin needs a more intense version of what happened in 2013, the last time Virginia had its gubernatorial election with a Democrat in the White House. Eight years ago, polls showed McAuliffe leading then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli by similar, if slightly larger margins as McAuliffe now leads Youngkin. But Cuccinelli went on to outperform pre-election polls by a noticeable amount and lost by fewer than 3 points. Of course, the 2013 race also featured a Libertarian candidate who ended up fizzling to the benefit of Cuccinelli. 

The good news for the Republican in the new Monmouth poll is that there’s movement underneath the fairly static topline. While Youngkin drooped a bit in the heavily Republican western part of the commonwealth—perhaps owing to insufficient fealty to former President Donald Trump—Youngkin made big strides since August in the I-95 corridor through and around Richmond. Last month, McAuliffe was winning that swath of Central Virginia by a 10-point margin, which was similar to Northam’s actual performance four years ago. Now Youngkin leads there by 9 points. These are small sample sizes and outliers can play havoc, but the signs say that Youngkin has got to be zeroing in on suburbanites from Petersburg to Chesterfield to Fredericksburg. The good news for McAuliffe is that in the Tidewater Region, home to many of the state’s black voters, his margin has grown by 9 points. The state’s largest cache of votes—Northern Virginia’s suburbs—ran deep and steady for McAuliffe by almost 30 points.

The candidates face off tonight in their second and last debate—a set-to at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria and hosted by NBC News’ Chuck Todd. We can bet that one topic will be Youngkin’s evolving posture on the effort by Trump to steal a second term. Youngkin now says he “absolutely” would have voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election if he had been in Congress. That’s a make-good after refusing to say how he would have voted. If Trump was unhappy about Youngkin trying to be both a sheep and a goat on matters MAGA, his absolutism about Trump’s loss will surely win Youngkin more abuse from Trump and his followers. 

McAuliffe, who is dealing with the downdraft from President Biden’s falling approval numbers and frustrations among Democrats about a stalled progressive agenda, can only benefit from a focus on Trump. There’s no way for Youngkin to answer the questions without either further depressing his support in bright-red western precincts or jeopardizing new backers around Richmond. 

The new normal for Virginia seems to be an electorate that pretty consistently clocks in at about 45 percent Republican. Except for the notable exceptions of the ill-conceived Senate nomination of an anti-immigration zealot in 2018 and the strong showings of Republican Mark Obenshain in 2013’s attorney general race and Gillespie in his 2014 Senate run, statewide Republican candidates since Mitt Romney got 47 percent of the vote in 2012 have remained in a very tight grouping right around 45 percent. That’s been true with big turnouts, small turnouts, presidential years, midterms and off-off year contests. 

Youngkin so far looks like a candidate who will land smack dab in the middle of that cluster. But McAuliffe knows that depressed Democratic turnout combined with just one nudge to the right in a couple of vote-rich Northern Virginia could turn the race into a squeaker. For now, Republicans are doing more than a little wishful thinking. But five weeks in the current Veg-O-Matic political climate is a long time, indeed. 

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.