ANALYSIS | Why Virginia Elections Have Huge National Implications

(CNN) – Whoever wins the close race for Virginia gubernatorial Tuesday, the Commonwealth will offer a fascinating read on where the country’s stormy politics lie a year after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, and can point to what will happen next.

In the final days of the race, both the candidates in Virginia, as well as the current president and the former president, have pointed out how the race has national importance and could set the tone for the midterm elections next year and beyond.

“The whole country is watching this … there are only two state elections this year, New Jersey and Virginia, and all eyes are on Virginia. The nation needs us to vote for them too,” declared Republican Glenn Youngkin in his latest campaign day on Monday. Ironically, however, Youngkin has done his best to keep the campaign local, emphasizing issues like schools and local taxes, to avoid being sucked into the political maelstrom that still rages around Trump.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is running for a non-consecutive second term, hopes apathy among his party’s voters after a somewhat erratic campaign will not diminish turnout in Democratic strongholds in the suburban belt outside Washington. After anchoring his bid to try to paint Youngkin as a less profane version of Trump, he needs the fear of the former president’s possible return to motivate his voters.

“Trump has endorsed him for the tenth time today,” McAuliffe said after the former president issued a new statement endorsing his opponent on Monday. “What does that tell you? The little MAGA folks, not as excited as you thought.” McAuliffe even went so far as to claim Monday night that Youngkin was “doing an event” with the former president, although a Youngkin aide confirmed to CNN that the Republican candidate did not call a tele-rally that Trump held Monday night. evening.

It can be dangerous to extrapolate too much about the nation’s political destiny in a single race. And what happens on Tuesday will not define the critical legislative elections of 2022 or the presidential duel of 2024.

But Virginia and New Jersey are often seen as referendums on a new White House, voting a year after the presidential election. They offer the first real health check in Biden’s first year in office, after he has endured a brutal summer and struggled to enact his massive infrastructure and social spending plans. A McAulliffe loss would be considered a disaster for Democrats and a sign that voters have already turned against them. And even a narrow victory in a state that Biden won easily in 2020 would likely still be seen as a warning sign for Democrats, suggesting that their political position has seriously eroded after a year in control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

Unusually, the previous presidency, with its extra-racial times and violent end, has also loomed over this Virginia campaign, testament to Trump’s still hugely divisive role in American politics. Bitter cultural and ideological clashes have rocked this campaign and are already beginning to shape the midterm elections. Youngkin has relied on a fierce reaction from conservatives to progressives’ push for transgender equality and an accountability for America’s past racial sins in teaching history in schools.

Scenes of irate parents at school board meetings in Virginia are replaying across the country, heralding a new flash point that could inject Republican campaigns with a similar energy to the Tea Party movement ahead of the 2010 midterm elections. .

And Virginia – with its rich and diverse suburbs and conservative rural areas, plus strongholds of black voters around the state capital of Richmond and down the coast – offers a demographic profile of America in miniature.

Now might be the time for the Republican Party

Until then-Senator Barack Obama won Virginia on his way to the White House in 2008, Virginia was considered a strong and conservative southern state for presidential votes, even as it elected a few Democrats across the state. But he has turned blue in the past four presidential elections, which is one reason McAuliffe’s struggles this year, after a successful term between 2014 and 2018, are striking. (Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms.)

But if there was ever a time for a Republican governor to take back the state, it may be now. An incumbent Democratic president has endured a miserable few months with his approval ratings dropping over 40. Trump was a great motivating force for disillusioned, independent and disillusioned moderate Democratic Republican voters in the state last year. But he’s not on the ballot, despite McAuliffe’s tireless efforts to paint Youngkin as a clone of the former president. Voters’ patience has also been sorely tested by the pandemic, with cases increasing in the summer despite Biden declaring it was all over on July 4.

National cultural struggles over face masks and vaccine mandates electrified the gubernatorial race, while Youngkin took advantage of the frustration with remote schooling for months over COVID-19 to gain an audience for his more partisan messages on human rights. parents to decide how American racial history is taught to their children. He also referred to several alleged assaults on schools in pro-Democratic Loudoun County, which sparked a controversy over the rights of transgender students.

McAuliffe had left the door wide open with an ill-advised comment in a debate earlier this year when he said, “I don’t think parents should tell schools what to teach.” Youngkin took the comment out of context, but in hindsight, that was the moment his campaign really gained traction as he chased his rival’s lead in the polls in October and turned the race into an election day tie.

Trump looms over the race

Despite all McAuliffe’s claims that a victory for his enemy would open the door to another Trump presidential campaign, the former Republican investment banker has done a neat job of not being Trump. Framing his campaign on local issues, despite their national implications, and vowing to increase spending on education and reject the grocery tax, Youngkin has sought to lure Virginia residents from the suburbs while sending coded messages to voters in Trump who needs them to participate in large numbers.

His promise to ban the teaching of Critical Theory of Race – a conservative media concern – in Virginia schools receives the most applause at his rallies, though it is not part of the curriculum. But last week, McAuliffe accused him of dealing in racial issues after Youngkin posted an ad in which a father, who turned out to be a conservative activist, complained about the explicit content of a book assigned to his son. With no name in the ad, the book turned out to be “Beloved,” by the late Toni Morrison, a Nobel laureate and one of the country’s most revered black literary figures. Racial issues are never far below the surface in Virginia, the headquarters of the Confederacy and the site of a 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, after which Trump did not condemn the racist protesters.

Youngkin has not campaigned with Trump, whose low ratings in suburbs across the country helped convict his party in the US House of Representatives in 2018 and the Senate and White House in 2020. But the former president’s statement endorsing To Youngkin on Monday it looked like an attempt to try to claim credit for his victory if he wins.

The imposing and mild-mannered Youngkin presents himself as a poor model for the Trump-driven attack on McAuliffe, a problem that Obama, one of the imported Democratic heavyweights to boost McAuliffe’s campaign, took up during a rally last month. “You can’t run ads that tell me you’re a regular hoop, dishwasher and cloth guy, but quietly cultivate the support of those who seek to topple our democracy,” Obama said.

Youngkin doesn’t have to win the suburbs in Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties on Tuesday. He just has to do well enough, especially with independents, to limit McAuliffe’s advantage as he drives Trump’s grassroots voters north of the state.

If he wins, Youngkin will validate a possible template for future Republican candidates who want to broaden their appeal but also need to avoid alienating Trump’s base. It has already demonstrated the power of running a campaign focused on frustrated parents with public schools. And given the magnitude of the task he faced, a Youngkin victory would crown a new star of the Republican Party, especially for those conservatives envisioning a post-Trump future.

A Youngkin victory would raise questions among Democrats about whether linking Republican candidates to extremism and the former president’s undemocratic incitement is a viable strategy for 2022. And yet Trump, who appears to be using the midterm elections as a springboard for his possible campaigning for 2024 and backing candidates who promote his lie that the last election was stolen from him, next year is likely to be a ubiquitous and explosive presence from which it will be difficult for any candidate to escape.

But anything short of a clear McAuliffe victory would postulate that Democratic House seats in Virginia could be in grave jeopardy next year if there is similar turnout. Given the narrow majority of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, there would be panic among dozens of Democrats about a possible Republican defeat next year, possibly precipitating a wave of incumbent retirements in threatened positions.

A close race or a small McAuliffe victory will also be closely watched for new signs that Trump and his acolytes will seek to feed their lies about a broken electoral system and allege voter fraud. Such claims would further damage faith in American democracy, already shattered among Trump supporters. But it would fuel the former president’s personal political goals.

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ANALYSIS | Why Virginia Elections Have Huge National Implications