Virginia Gubernatorial Race Heats Up

Virginians haven’t elected a Republican candidate to statewide office since 2009. Can Glenn Youngkin reverse the trend?

Two opposing trends will be on display in Virginia’s gubernatorial election this fall. On the one hand, the candidate running against the sitting president’s party has won all but one election since 1977. On the other, no GOP candidate has won a statewide race in Virginia in 12 years. Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe hopes that the latter trend will prevail and carry him to the governor’s mansion in November even though Joe Biden is in the White House. 

So far, McAuliffe’s campaign strategy consists of touting his record as governor from 2014 to 2018 and portraying his opponent as a clone of former President Donald Trump. His allies are fully on board with the plan. “Terry and I share a lot in common,” President Biden said at a July 23 rally for McAuliffe in Arlington, Virginia. “I ran against Donald Trump and so is Terry. And I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia and so will Terry.” 

McAuliffe’s Republican opponent is Glenn Youngkin, a first-time candidate and former CEO of the Carlyle Group who is trying to reverse Virginia’s decade-long march into purple territory. 

Virginia voters backed the Republican nominee in every presidential election from 1968 to 2008, when Barack Obama flipped the state. It’s since trended bluer in recent years: Trump lost the Old Dominion by 10 points in November, and the state’s sitting governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general are all Democrats.

Polling suggests the race leans in McAuliffe’s favor but is still a bit too close for comfort. A Christopher Newport University survey of likely voters from August 15-23  gives McAuliffe a 9-point lead over Youngkin, and a Roanoke College poll conducted August 3-17 puts McAuliffe 8 points ahead.

One potential hiccup for McAuliffe that has nothing to do with polling or platforms is that the Virginia GOP has sued McAuliffe on Aug. 26 for neglecting to sign his candidacy form. The news made a brief splash in the news last week, but campaign analysts say it’s unlikely to affect the race. “They’re not going to take him off the ballot,” said Chaz Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, a forecasting group that specializes in Virginia races and state legislative elections.

On policy, McAuliffe says he plans to raise the minimum wage from $8.75 to $15 an hour, ban assault weapons, and act as a “brick wall” against the pro-life movement. He isn’t keen on answering questions about critical race theory, which has rattled many parents in Loudoun County, Virginia’s wealthiest county and ground zero for the state’s debate on the issue. 

McAuliffe also takes a much more progressive approach to pandemic policy than his opponent. He has required his campaign staff to be vaccinated and has called on employers in his state to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their employees. Youngkin, meanwhile, encourages people to get vaccinated but maintains that he will not allow pandemic lockdowns to resume in Virginia if he becomes governor. 

Youngkin says he will ban the teaching of critical race theory in public schools if elected and has vowed to protect qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that protects police officers from being sued unless the rights in question violate a “clearly established” law. A classic business conservative, Youngkin has endorsed a “day one” tax plan that would, among other things, eliminate Virginia’s grocery tax and provide a one-time tax rebate of $600 for joint filers and $300 for individuals.  

Youngkin’s challenge is to present a Republican platform that’s palatable to moderates and independents—especially those who live in the state's increasingly blue Northern Virginia suburbs—while also appealing to GOP voters who still identify with Trump.

“I was talking to one of my Republican friends a month ago, and he said basically what Youngkin needs to do is he needs to get the Trump turnout in the rural areas, but he needs to perform like Romney in the suburban areas,” said J. Miles Coleman, an assistant editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “But, you know, each election is a different event. So you can’t just take the best parts of each coalition.”

The Trump-endorsed candidate avoids even mentioning the former president’s name at campaign events. This strategy won him the nomination, but some voters wonder whether his eagerness to distance himself from Trump has led him to conceal his real policy ambitions on contentious issues. Youngkin’s views on gun control, for example, are so vague that the NRA declined to endorse his candidacy, even though the organization endorsed Winsome Sears, GOP’s nominee for lieutenant governor, and Jason Miyares, the party’s candidate for attorney general.

Youngkin’s views on abortion are even thornier. At a campaign event earlier this summer, two undercover abortion activists posing as pro-life rally attendees asked the GOP candidate whether he planned to “take it to the abortionists” if elected governor. “I’m gonna be really honest with you, the short answer is, in this campaign, I can’t,” Youngkin says in the video. “When I’m governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

When speaking to the press, Youngkin declines to say whether he would seek to change the state’s existing abortion laws. “I am a pro life, and I do believe in exceptions when there's rape, incest, or the life of the mother is at risk,” Youngkin told me at a July 24 campaign event at a Vietnamese restaurant in Falls Church, Virginia. “I do think that one of the biggest issues in abortion today candidly, is that my opponent supports late term abortions, he supports using taxpayer money for late term abortions all the way up through the last week of pregnancy.” 

Youngkin’s campaign also sidesteps questions about the Texas fetal heart bill that passed last week and whether he would enact similar legislation in Virginia if elected. “The Texas law is not something that is here in Virginia,” Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter told The Dispatch Wednesday. “What is in Virginia is Terry McAuliffe’s extreme agenda, which advocates for abortion, all the way up through and including birth.” 

The jab is a reference to a 2019, when Democratic delegate Kathy Tran proposed a bill that would allow abortions up until birth if one doctor said the procedure was necessary to protect the mother’s mental health. McAuliffe initially opposed the bill in February of 2019 but walked those comments back two months later, calling the legislation a “common sense bill” and admitting that he “would not have vetoed that bill” if it had come to his desk.

On the campaign trail, McAuliffe avoids answering questions about the 2019 bill, and maintains that the only change he would make to existing state abortion laws is to enshrine Roe v. Wade in the Virginia constitution.

Will the candidates’ stances on abortion even matter at the ballot box? “Voters have a very short attention span,” Nuttycombe said. “So I’m not sure that [abortion] is going to be an issue that they keep on talking about until Election Day.” Only 4 percent of registered Virginia voters surveyed in a Monmouth University poll conducted August 24-29 said abortion is a top issue that gubernatorial candidates should talk about during the campaign. The issue lags far behind other top issues for Virginia voters, including the pandemic (23 percent), the economy (16 percent), and education/public schools (18 percent).

Looking ahead to November, Coleman said many of the Democratic operatives he’s been in contact with fear that they don’t have the enthusiasm or financial resources they had in 2017, when Northam beat Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie by 9 points.  Then again, Coleman explained, “Virginia could now just be fundamentally a more Democratic state than it was even four years ago.” Coleman said the gubernatorial race is a classic “lean Democrat” race and that he expects McAuliffe to win by a few points. 

It’s worth remembering that Youngkin isn’t just running for governor. He’s leading his ticket, meaning his campaign strategies will have trickle down effects on state races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, and the state house of delegates. 

The two candidates will face off in their next debate at the Appalachian School of Law on Sept. 16, the day before early voting begins. Will Youngkin’s ambiguity on contentious issues give some leverage to McAuliffe? Or are pandemic-fatigued Virginians eager for a return to conservative governing?