CHESAPEAKE, Va. — There is a far-reaching and oh-so-familiar shadow stretching across Virginia’s political landscape that could have profound implications for the election of a new governor, a contest that figures to be the only major competitive race in the country this fall.
Former president Donald Trump will not be on the ballot in Virginia, but his political legacy will be.
Glenn Youngkin, an affable former private equity executive, is testing whether a Republican can sidestep Trump without fully rejecting him and still prevail in a state where the former president lost reelection by 10 points but where he remains deeply popular with conservative activists.
And in what could be an equally revealing strategy, former governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat seeking to reclaim his old job, is going to determine whether linking Republicans to Trump — a tactic that helped turn Virginia’s suburbs a deeper blue during the last four years — is as potent when Trump is no longer in the Oval Office, or even on Twitter.
Both questions reflect a larger issue: how strong a tug the country’s polarized and increasingly nationalized politics can have on an off-year state race of the type that is usually consumed by debates over taxes, transportation, education, and the economy.
It is a real-life political science experiment that is all the richer because it is taking place in a state that was once solidly conservative, and where for many years it was the Democrats who had to distance themselves from their national party.
But Virginia, which supported only Republicans for president from 1964 to 2008, is a state transformed, thanks to its expansive metropolitan growth. George W. Bush was the last GOP presidential nominee to carry the state, and Democrats control every statewide office and both state legislative chambers.
If Republicans are to win back the governorship and reclaim a foothold in this increasingly Democratic state, this would seem to be the year.
Youngkin is leading a unified party, can saturate the airwaves using millions of dollars from his own fortune, and has never run for office, let alone cast a vote as a lawmaker, denying opposition researchers the grist for attack ads. That’s to say nothing of Virginia’s decades-long history of electing governors from the opposite party of whoever won the White House the previous year.
That is a challenge that McAuliffe takes seriously.
After he clinched an easy victory in the Democratic primary Tuesday night, McAuliffe — who is seeking to replace Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat who is constitutionally barred from seeking another term — sought to rouse his party by warning them that Youngkin’s ability to self-finance is a threat that must be taken seriously.
“There are 75 million reasons why Glenn Youngkin could win,” McAuliffe told supporters, alluding to how much the Republican could spend on the campaign.
If Youngkin is able to spend enough money to define himself to voters before Democrats do it, and if President Biden’s popularity wanes by November — as it did with then-president Obama in 2009, the last time Republicans won the governorship in Virginia — Youngkin will be positioned to at least make the race close.
In contrast to the last two Virginia governor’s races, the GOP’s conservative and more establishment-aligned factions are united behind Youngkin.
“This is totally winnable for Republicans,” said Jerry Kilgore, a former state attorney general and a Republican who once ran for governor himself. “But if he loses, there will be a lot of depressed people, because there’s a lot of optimism right now.”
To prevail, Youngkin will have to demonstrate some Simone Biles-like footwork when it comes to answering for his party’s brand and, in particular Trump, the former and potentially future standard-bearer.
“I don’t think he’s coming this year,” Youngkin said in response to a question of whether he wanted Trump to campaign with him.
Youngkin was more direct when asked if he still thought Trump was the leader of the GOP.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a leader of our party,” he said.
That answer triggered an unprompted clarification from an aide, who requested anonymity to say that what the candidate had meant was “that the Republican Party does not solely rely on one individual or leader” and that “Glenn really is the leader of the Republican Party in Virginia, as the party truly has come together around him.”
If he is not willing to fully break with Trump — in fact, he gladly accepted the former president’s endorsement the day after claiming the nomination — Youngkin clearly wants to project a sunnier style of politics to the suburban voters who will decide Virginia’s election.
“I believe that Virginians are like Americans, are ready to come out of this pandemic and are ready to look ahead and think about hope and optimism and opportunity and not spend time basically tearing each other down,” he said.
McAuliffe, though, is determined to remind this state’s voters of the president they twice rejected. In his victory speech Tuesday, he cited Youngkin’s warmer words for Trump during the Republican nomination process. And in his final barnstorming tour of Virginia before the primary concluded, he ignored his intraparty rivals and connected Youngkin to the former president.
Asked in an interview why he was still focused on Trump, McAuliffe said: “He may be out of office, but he’s the most powerful person in the Republican Party,” pointing to the Senate GOP’s filibustering of a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol.
“Are you kidding me?” he said, adding: “This man is as big with the Republican Party as he’s ever been. He has dominance over this party.”
Whether that is enough to deter Virginians from electing a Republican governor is another question, though.
“As many people that died with COVID, including my mother — yes; yes, it’s still powerful,” said Gaylene Kanoyton, a state Democratic Party official, when asked whether invoking Trump was a successful strategy. “Our families and friends would have still been here if we had a different president.”
Other Democrats, though, are skeptical that waving the flag of Trumpism will be sufficient with voters who are eager to move on from his presidency.
“Talking about Trump in 2021 is really stale and won’t be enough to win swing voters,” said Ben Tribbett, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist, noting that even when Trump was president, Democrats had still used much of their advertising budget to highlight policy issues.
The question of how much Trump can be weaponized may be determined by whether he shows up in Virginia.
Ultimately, the governor’s race in Virginia may turn on whether a lavishly funded candidate can win without making any concessions to the political nature of his state. That is what Republican governors like Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts have done to win in blue states and what John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, did to win in deep-red Louisiana.