Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
Election day is nearing in the Virginia gubernatorial race, in what is shaping up to be an early electoral test of Joe Biden’s presidency and the Democratic majority in national politics.
It is of course important to separate the national and the local. Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia, is no more responsible for the decisions made by Joe Biden in Washington than Andy Street in the West Midlands is for those made by Boris Johnson in Westminster. That does not stop parallels being drawn.
On November 2, an election will take place to elect the next governor of Virginia. Northam is ineligible to run for re-election, as stipulated by the Constitution of Virginia, which prohibits the officeholder from serving consecutive terms.
In theory, Democrats should be in a confident mood. The Commonwealth of Virginia has leant more and more blue in recent years, and the Democrats have won 13 out of the last 14 races for President, Senate and Governor since 2005.
The demographics of the state ought to shift the momentum firmly behind the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe. But the race comes against a backdrop of a dismal summer for Biden, whose popularity has fallen by 11 points since March in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal, and amidst a slowing Covid recovery plan, rising inflation, and a stalling legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. Now only 44 per cent of Americans approve of the job he is doing.
The Trump factor
Donald J Trump has played a limited role in the race so far, though his presence was delicately welcomed last week by the Republican candidate, Glyn Youngkin.
Trump called in to a gathering of Virginia supporters, urging them to vote for Youngkin and calling him “a great gentleman”. Youngkin accepted Trump’s endorsement, saying he “represents so much of why I’m running”. Flirting with the Trump wing of the party in order to win over their support, Youngkin initially refused to admit that Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, or to say that he would have certified the victory.
This represents a risk for the Republican campaign. After all, Virginia is not Oklahoma, Tennessee or Mississippi: this is not Trump country. Joe Biden’s approval rating is lagging in the state (49 per cent) but he is nonethless seven points more popular than Trump was (42 per cent) at this stage of his presidency in 2017. Biden won the state by a resounding 10 points in 2020 presidential election.
Whilst Trump may be far from universally popular in Virginia, he doesn’t need to be in order to make a decisive difference. Motivating Republican voters to turn out on election day is likely to be the 45th President’s most potent weapon in shaping the outcome of this race. The strength of feeling about Biden suggests that Trump could be deeply effective here.
Just 46 per cent of Democratic voters in Virginia “strongly approve” of Biden’s performance as president. On the other hand, 80 per cent of Republicans “strongly disapprove”. Combine that with the fact that Youngkin is doing better amongst independent voters, and you can see a path to victory for the Republican candidate, fueled by a Donald Trump-shaped intervention.
A sign of things to come?
Extrapolating the Virginia race to a national level provides a useful first look at how the next presidential election might play out. More immediately, we are just one year away from the midterm elections for Congress, which historically see the sitting president’s party lose seats.
Democrats will get their first chance to test whether Biden is rewarded for his turbocharging of the vaccine rollout, or else punished for insisting on a federal vaccine requirement and lingering mask mandates. Republicans, who have inserted President Trump into the middle of their candidate’s campaign despite his relative unpopularity in the state, will be able to test whether his divisiveness and occasional toxicity can overcome a decline in Biden’s headline popularity.
The dividing lines on which this race is being run are largely to be expected: presidential approval, the state of the local and national economy, and the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. But three words that have become central to this election are also likely to grow in importance in national US politics as the midterms and the 2024 presidential election nears: Critical Race Theory.
In July, Youngkin said “We actually have this Critical Race Theory moved into all our schools in Virginia.” The educational policy teaches a broad set of ideas about systemic bias and privilege, which has prompted some parents to allege that white children are being painted as racists through no action or fault of their own.
It is the kind of issue that can alter the course of an election, and it divides the country far beyond Virginia’s borders. Northam said last yer that Virginia needs to “build anti-racist school communities.” Aiding the claims of the Youngkin campaign, the Virginia Department of Education cites the book “How to be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at Boston College, and an advocate of Critical Race Theory, in a segment on “Anti-racism in Education.”
There is no evidence to prove Youngkin’s claim that Critical Race Theory has moved into “all our schools in Virginia”. But the inability of the Department of Education to refute that claim entirely has provided enough oxygen for the issue to become a key pillar of this election – one that Trump will exploit.
The Virginiana gubernatorial is currently more unpredictable than perhaps it should be. A state recently won in a presidential election by 10 points should not be within the margin of error.
And yet FiveThirtyEight’s latest forecast puts McCauliffe (D) just 2.9 points ahead of Youngkin (R). An unexpected victory for the Republican will be received by Donald Trump as a sign that he retains a Midas touch, and that no state or district is beyond his reach in an inevitable 2024 presidential election run.