Usually, the Virginia governor’s race is seen as a herald for what will happen in a midterm election a year later. This year there’s more to it than that.
It’s one of three gubernatorial elections this year—if you count the upcoming recall vote for Governor Gavin Newsom in California—where a Democrat whose tenure as governor gets a close review. But it’s the only race of those three where the legislative progress of the state and, most likely, control of the state legislature is effectively at stake. In other words, it’s the only state with an election that could result in a dramatic reversal of its political tilt.
“There are national implications. I think if Republicans can’t win this year when they have always made gains the year after the presidency, that suggests a Republican Party that continues to be in a downward spiral, anchored by Trump and Trumpism,” said former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello, himself a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “And if Democrats can’t hold a fairly blue state, then obviously it suggests a fairly different narrative.”
Publicly, both Democrats and Republicans are bullish for their respective candidates. Privately, it’s a dramatically different situation. Interviews with almost a dozen Virginia Democratic and Republican lawmakers reveal a few points of agreement. They all admit that, contrary to public polling, which shows Democrat and former Governor Terry McAuliffe ahead, private surveys show the race as close.
These Democrats and Republicans also say that the outcome of the governor’s race will have a trickle-down effect to lower-ticket races. So if McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, wins, that means voters will have stuck with Democrats lower down the ballot. If Youngkin wins, the argument goes, then Republicans will have also probably made significant gains in the state legislature, too.
The situation is a result of two terms of Democratic control of the governor’s mansion, during a heady period within the party under both McAuliffe and current Governor Ralph Northam that saw Virginia expand Medicaid and pass new laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the work place. Medicaid expansion, passed under Northam, gave 400,000 Virginians access to health insurance. During his time in office, McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights for 200,000 convicted felons in the state.
And now Democrats fear all that could be wiped away by Youngkin, a Harvard-educated CEO and businessman, who at times has seemed like a member of the shrinking moderate wing of the Republican Party (and at other times has not). Youngkin has tried to plot a precarious course through the primary that’s increasingly familiar to Republican candidates: Don’t alienate independent voters or turn off moderates, but also keep the same conservatives who enthusiastically voted for Donald Trump.
Youngkin has retained an opaque position on guns and abortion. He’s criticized the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan as a “blue state bailout” and made the same argument for more election security measures that the loudest conservative Republicans have argued for. He’s also gotten a glowing endorsement from Trump. That has led some of the most famous outcast Republican figures to support McAuliffe. Bill Kristol, who lives in northern Virginia, has endorsed him.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s Republican Party has been stricken with internal strife and confusion. Most recently the party filed a lawsuit to bump McAuliffe from the ballot over a missing signature. Its overly complicated nominating process has highlighted inconsistencies on how the party views enforcing voter security and election integrity measures. Earlier this year, in a development reminiscent of Trump himself, top members of the party tried to overturn results in their nominating contests—four times.
So that sets up a situation where the direction of the state increasingly hinges on the outcome of this gubernatorial election. Both Republicans and Democrats say whoever wins the governor’s race will benefit their party in the Virginia House of Delegates, where Democrats control a slim five-seat majority (out of 40 total seats).
“If Terry loses, I think they’ll lose the House of Delegates. No doubt about it,” Colm O’Comartun, a former executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview.
Youngkin, in a leaked video, has argued that he could really move the state in a different direction with legislative control. Virginia Republicans would push for right-to-work laws their counterparts in other states have championed. Democrats worry they would try to undo Medicaid expansion, although elsewhere even conservative legislatures have embraced those laws after they passed. They would also push for stricter voting ID laws. But if the outcome is divided government, no one expects much progress at all in any direction.
“For essentially two years there will be no movement,” said Virginia Delegate Josh Cole, a Democrat. And that’s in the scenarios where Youngkin wins but Democrats control the House or vice versa. Cole, in ticking off the other permutations of control, predicted that if Youngkin won and carried his party to control of the House of Delegates, Youngkin is really going to have to prove that “he’s the moderate that he claims to be.”
And if Democrats retain control of the House but not the governorship, Cole predicted gridlock familiar to anyone who follows the U.S. Congress. “That would be two years of stall, two years of dead work,” Cole said.
Kirk McPike, the Democratic nominee for City Council in Alexandria who also serves as a chief of staff on Capitol Hill, described it as an all-or-nothing situation for Democrats. Either they retain control and keep turning the state blue or see an immediate halt.
“What’s at stake is that for the last two years Virginia has had, for the first time in decades, a unified Democratic government, and for the first time ever a unified progressive Democratic government that has been doing important things,” McPike said in an interview. “Making progress on marijuana laws. Making changes on things like criminal justice and the death penalty and progress on rights for LGBTQ Virginians. And all of that is on the ballot. Even if just Glenn Youngkin were to win and we held everything else, it would just stop. All of that forward momentum that has been hard won over the last decade for the Virginia Democratic Party.”
It’s a somewhat odd scenario for anyone who’s followed McAuliffe’s career in politics. For years he’s been closely associated with the establishment wing of the party and earned a reputation as overly slick and too eager to raise money from some corporate sources when he was Democratic National Committee chair. McAuliffe was never the favorite of the most liberal activists within the party. In the primary this year, he faced a progressive challenger, Jennifer Carol Foy, and two other foes. He thumped Foy by 60 percent to 20 percent—another indication, as was Eric Adams’s New York Democratic primary mayoral victory, that Democratic voters aren’t the same thing as Democratic Twitter.
Republicans like to say, optimistically, they may not have much of a record of winning major races in Virginia lately, but there’s a high level of energy on their side, a point that worries Democrats.
“I think McAuliffe’s weakness is a lack of intensity among a lot of the left,” said former Congressman Tom Davis, a Republican. “Youngkin’s problem is he’s got to show who he is, and to date we know he’s a very wealthy business guy—went to Harvard Business School and has a good business record. But we don’t know much else. How do you handle Trump, et cetera et cetera? And of course you don’t handle Trump because no one can.”
Even with Democratic control of both Senate seats, Democratic control of the state legislature, and Democratic control of the governor’s mansion nearing a decade, Virginia is not a reliably blue state yet. A McAuliffe win on November 2 would reassure Democrats about their 2022 chances. A McAuliffe loss, on the other hand, would remind the Democrats of how fragile their hold on power is.