Since the Civil War, Virginia has elected its governors in the year after the presidential election. Like by-elections here in Australia, it is a big off-year electoral “test” of how the President’s party is doing after winning office.
What makes Virginia especially interesting is that it has become increasingly Democratic – and it has the capability of sending a sharp rebuke to the president’s party.
Barack Obama easily carried Virginia is 2008.
- In 2009, one year into Barack Obama’s historic presidency, Virginia’s governor election went Republican – signaling trouble for Obama with a sluggish economic recovery from the Great Recession, and his signature health care reform – Obamacare – still months away from enactment. In 2010, Obama lost control the House of Representatives in a Republican wave that swept 63 Democrats from Congress.
Obama won Virginia again in 2012, and Hillary Clinton carried Virginia in 2016.
- In 2017, one year into Donald Trump’s shock presidency, the Democratic candidate kept the governorship in that party’s hands. Ralph Northam succeeded the Democrat who won in 2013, Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and longtime associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton. This lit a fuse that would ultimately lead to war between Democrats, who won 41 Republican seats to take control of the House in 2018, and Trump, who would be impeached twice for abuse of power and violations of his Constitutional oath of office.
Biden overwhelmed Trump in Virginia last year. The booming suburbs outside Washington, and strong Black and immigration communities through the state, have diversified the electorate and made Virginia less a conservative bastion.
Will Virginia’s election on Tuesday signal something as momentous as the messages sent to Obama in 2009 and Trump in 2017? Will Biden lose control of the House next year – ending his ability to pass any more major legislation?
Terry McAuliffe is back again, running to reclaim the governorship. His opponent is Glenn Youngkin, a multimillionaire venture capital titan, who has welcomed support from Donald Trump. Trump will call into a Youngkin rally later tonight, election eve.
Biden had these political stakes clearly in his sights in July, when he campaigned with McAuliffe:
I mean this, not just for Virginia, but for the country. The country is looking. These off-year elections, the country is looking. This is a big deal…
Look, in this election and in 2022, the question the American people are going to be asking is whether or not we’re helping them and their families — not giving them anything. Are we giving them a shot — just giving them an even shot? Do we understand what they’re going through? Can we deliver for them?
As Democrats, we have to show we do understand, and we’re delivering for them, and we’re keeping our promises. We just have to keep making the case — just as the Republican Party today offers nothing but fear, lies, and broken promises.
But everyone is watching Virginia’s election on Tuesday to see if instead this message will be sent to President Biden: You are not delivering. Your big social and climate and infrastructure bills have not passed.
After a promising start in the first 6 months of this year, the inability to get fully on top of the Delta surge and the economic uncertainty has triggered – slower growth, higher inflation, supply chain shortages, higher gas prices – may well mean Virginia voters are out of patience and do not trust Biden.
In the closing days of the campaign, McAuliffe has tried to wrap Trump around Youngkin – that Virginia is not Trump territory.
McAuliffe has also been begging Biden and the Democrats in Congress to break their deadlock, find consensus and pass the legislation – so that he can show Virginia that billions will come to the state and its households.
But votes to pass the bills will now come too late for McAuliffe.
One other issue has emerged to steal attention: education. Are Virginia’s schools being taken over by a radical Democratic ideology through the teaching of “critical race theory” and curricula infused with provocative novels like Toni Morrisons’s “Beloved”? Youngkin has made this political culture issue a hot button for suburban voters and independents whose swings can determine the outcome.
McAuliffe enjoyed a big lead over Youngkin until the Biden slump in August. Biden’s approval is now in the low 40s and his disapproval is at 50% or higher. The Democrats in Congress have also not passed anything on voting rights or police reform or gun control – and enthusiasm especially among Blacks appears to be waning.
McAuliffe has called in all the Democratic big guns to join him onstage: both Obamas, Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, Stacey Abrams and Keisha Lance Bottoms of Georgia – and Joe Biden again last week.
But McAuliffe’s polls are at best tied; several show him trailing.
Will the Virginia curse of 2009 and 2017 come back to bite Biden?
Try these post-election messages out:
- If McAuliffe loses: “Democrats! You damn fools! If you cannot govern you cannot win elections! How many times do we have to learn this lesson? You didn’t pass Obamacare early and lost the House in 2010. So let's pass these bills! And nothing on voting rights! If you have any hope of holding the House, what the hell are you waiting for?”
- If McAuliffe wins: “My god, a miracle that we could win under such adversity – amazing and shows underlying Democratic strength. People want Biden to succeed – not Trump!”
- And if Republican Youngkin wins: “We nailed McAuliffe on the radical extremism that runs rife through the Democrats! And Biden is pathetic. His out-of-control socialist agenda is not what America wants. But it was Trump and his support for me who sealed the deal. Republicans: you want to take back Congress next hear and the presidency in 2024? Stick with Trump. In Trump We Trust.