A post-Trump test for the Democrats threatens the Virginia election

Democrats in Virginia are fighting to avert disasters in the state’s gubernatorial race.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – For four years, nothing made Democrats suffer the pressure to get Donald Trump out of office. Now they do not know what to do without him.

Virginia Democrats are fighting to avert the catastrophe in the state’s governor’s race – the most competitive major election since Trump left the White House. The surprisingly tight competition has revealed the depth of the party’s dependence on Trump as a message and motivator. Without him top of mind for many, and with headwinds from Washington, Democratic officials privately fear they could lose their first nationwide election in Virginia in more than a decade on Tuesday.

Public opinion polls have changed in the direction of Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkins in recent weeks, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former governor and close ally of President Joe Biden, has struggled to get energy to his base as Biden’s approval ratings drop. Republicans, engrossed in conflicts and crises while Trump was in office, are suddenly optimistic that they can win in a state where Trump lost by 10 percentage points last year.

“Virginia is a very blue state – I do not consider Virginia a purple state – so the fact that we are so competitive speaks volumes about the state of our country and the popularity of Biden,” said Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel.

A loss in the Virginia governor’s race, long considered a chime for midterm elections, would trigger total panic among Democrats far beyond Virginia. The party is already wary of their chances in elections that will decide control of the House and Senate and state houses next year.

Jaime Harrison, chair of the Democratic National Committee, acknowledged that a McAuliffe loss would be a “doomsday scenario”. But he argued that the Virginia Democrats would show up and win McAuliffe.

“I’m not running around with my hair on fire, not at this point,” he said.

Regardless of the outcome, the race will be chosen for clues as to what resonated with voters – and what did not.

The policies surrounding Trump, who left office more than nine months ago, remain complicated. McAuliffe’s team believes he remains very unpopular with the Democratic base, independents and even some moderate Republicans in Virginia. As such, he should be a good motivator for McAulife’s coalition. But Trump’s absence from the limelight, combined with voter fatigue and the ongoing pandemic, appears to have diluted anti-Trump passions – at least for now.

Still, McAuliffe spent the vast majority of his record-breaking fundraising to warn voters that his opponent, who was endorsed by Trump but kept his distance from him, is a “Trump wannabe.” McAulife’s concluding television commercials included footage from the January 6 Capitol uprising led by Trump supporters who believed the former president’s lies about a “stolen election.”

Youngkin created the opening for these attacks when he made “election integrity” the centerpiece of his lineup during the nomination contest, refusing to say Biden was legally elected before locking the nomination. Youngkin has shown a “disqualifying lack of leadership,” the Democratic U.S. Rep said. Abigail Spanberger, who defended McAulife’s decision to raise the issue.

“We can not forget – and I will certainly never forget – that we had an uprising on January 6 at the nation’s Capitol,” she said. “Literally, people beat police officers with American flags during this notion of a lie that the former president spat out and people with loud voices, elected, spread.”

But McAuliffe’s attack on his opponent may have undermined the Democrat’s relatively weak favorable ratings. He has garnered support from less than 50% of voters in all but a handful of public opinion polls this year.

Meanwhile, Youngkin has not played the role of an angry Trump loyalist.

A former private equity executive who often avoids difficult political issues, Youngkin spent more than $ 20 million of his personal fortune on a month-long advertising campaign that defined himself as a loving, suburban father in a fleece vest. He has not campaigned with Trump or any high-profile Republicans, and he told reporters he would not be involved with a Trump by phone on Monday.

To connect with the party’s base, Youngkin seized conservatives’ frustrations over schools over pandemic policies and racial and diversity education. He has benefited from a network of parent groups, some led by political professionals affiliated with the GOP and the Trump administration, activated in key suburbs. He ran an ad with a mother and GOP activist who eight years ago led an effort to ban “Beloved,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by black Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, from classrooms.

McAuliffe calls it a “racist dog whistle,” a claim that Youngkin rejected.

History works against Democrats, who control the legislative and executive branches of Virginia and Washington. Traditionally, the party holding the White House almost always loses the Virginia governor’s race. McAuliffe himself was the first in 40 years to break this trend in 2013.

McAuliffe’s team points to Biden’s sliding popularity, which has fallen close to Trump’s levels at this point in his presidency. Meanwhile, the Democratic-led Congress has failed to deliver sweeping campaign promises as negotiations on a massive climate change and social safety net package drag on. This week, Democrats dropped a popular proposal for paid family leave, which disappointed many Democratic women in Virginia, a critical constituency.

Aside from disappointment, Virginia Democrats say they are exhausted.

“We’ve had four years of being on high alert, getting out of COVID, getting out of a lockdown. I think people just lived their lives and did not want to think about an election,” said state Sen. Jennifer McClellan. who ran against McAuliffe for the Democratic nomination.

A Republican presidential candidate has not supported the state since 2004. Census data show that the state’s democratically sloping northern part of the state is growing, while the GOP strongholds are losing population.

Fairfax County, which voted nearly 70% for Biden and is by far Virginia’s most populous county, grew by 6% to a population of 1.15 million in the last decade. It also became a majority minority county. Meanwhile, in deep red southwestern Virginia and along the southern border of the state, almost all localities lost population.

The trends, combined with a democratic shift among suburban Republicans during the Trump era, suggest Democrats would win easily on Tuesday if only they show their supporters. However, the early voting period, which ends on Saturday, did not attract the increase in voters in key areas that Democrats were hoping for.

A McAuliffe get-out-the-vote event on the conservative southern fringe of the state drew just a few dozen people to a church reception hall earlier in the week. One contestant, Martinsville’s deputy mayor Jennifer Bowles, said she hopes McAuliffe wins, but sees evidence of Trump’s strength where she lives.

“It’s not diminished. If anything, it feels like it’s getting stronger,” Bowles said. “It scares me.”

McAuliffe campaigned with Vice President Kamala Harris and musical artist Pharrell Williams Friday night in Norfolk, which drew about 1,000 people, according to a State Party spokesman.

McAuliffe went after Youngkin and his supporters and told the audience: “I can not tell you how critical this election is. The effort could not be more clear. On the one hand… conspiracy theorists, we have antivaxers and we have Donald Trump. They are all on one side.”

Three hours north of rural Warrenton, more than 1,000 people attended a meeting with Youngkin and a handful of state lawmakers.

“We have Terry on the run,” Youngkin told the electric audience. “We want to sweep Republicans across this Commonwealth and come up with a statement that will be heard around the world.”

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