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In unexpectedly tight Virginia governor’s race, some see a warning for Democrats

Former president Barack Obama campaigned for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (right) at a campaign rally in Richmond on Oct. 23.RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images

RICHMOND — Barack Obama was the biggest name in a star-studded lineup of Democrats campaigning for gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe last weekend in a state the party had thought was now an indelible shade of blue.

But the race is tighter than Democrats ever expected, and the former president implored the crowd of about 2,000 people to look at the big picture in a narrowly divided nation.

“Go out there and fight and work because you’re going to decide this election and the direction of Virginia and the direction of this country for generations to come,” Obama said ahead of a Nov. 2 election widely viewed as a bellwether for Democrats’ prospects of maintaining their slim congressional majorities next fall.

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For weeks, Democrats have sought to turn the tightening Nov. 2 race between McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin into a referendum on President Biden’s agenda, framing it as an existential threat to the progress liberal Virginians have made in this once red state. But Republicans seem to be taking a cue from the 2018 midterms, when Democrats took control of the US House by winning key seats in Republican-controlled battlegrounds: Keep it local.

In the closing days of his campaign, Youngkin and his allies have talked up rising gas prices, pledged to reduce taxes and relax vaccine mandates, as well as stoked rage over school curriculums on race and history — a playbook political analysts expect to see again in contests against Democrats across the country in 2022.

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin walked onstage for a campaign rally Oct. 26 in Danville, Va. Anna Moneymaker/Getty

“I have parents all over the nation sending me texts and e-mails ... saying, ‘Glenn, stand up for our kids, too,’” Youngkin told an audience at a Newport News brewery this week. Youngkin seldom mentions the name of Donald Trump, who has endorsed him, but he has attempted to gin up the kind of cultural and racial anger among mostly white conservatives that drove Trump to victory.

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A day after the Newport News event, Youngkin released a final campaign ad featuring a mother who fought to ban Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beloved” from her son’s English studies in Virginia’s Fairfax County nearly a decade ago because she objected to some of its explicit language. McAuliffe criticized the ad as a “racist dog whistle.”

Obama’s appearance on Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University came a day after a fiery speech in Charlottesville by voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who urged Democratic voters to head to the polls to prevent laws making it harder to vote and restricting access to abortion, such as those in the Republican-controlled states of Georgia and Texas.

This week, McAuliffe’s campaign brought in New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Vice President Kamala Harris, and even Biden, who on Tuesday delivered forceful rebukes against Youngkin — and Trump — before an audience of 2,500 people at a park in Arlington.

“Just remember this: I ran against Donald Trump, and Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump,” Biden said. “Terry’s opponent doesn’t like to talk about [it] very much now, but to win the Republican nomination, he embraced Donald Trump.”

Virginia, a traditional swing state, has long served as a litmus test of the popularity of a newly elected president’s party because it and New Jersey are the only states to hold gubernatorial elections the following year. Polls show McAuliffe and Youngkin in a statistical dead heat.

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It’s been one of the fiercest elections in a state where no Republican has won statewide office since 2009, and where Biden defeated Trump by 10 percentage points in 2020. But pressure on Democrats has mounted as Biden’s approval ratings have dropped, and McAuliffe complained on a video conference call this month about Biden’s unpopularity and “a lot of headwinds from Washington.”

Democrats already face a daunting challenge keeping their slim congressional majorities. Historical trends show that the party holding the White House tends to lose House seats in the midterms, and the redrawing of electoral maps is expected to favor Republicans. The possibility of a Republican victory in Virginia is only fueling more consternation as the Senate is split 50-50 and Democrats hold a slim 220-212 majority in the House.

“Virginia has made so much progress for all of us on so many fronts, and I think it is important to all of that, that we not be at risk of sliding back,” said former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, who has been among the heavy-hitting Democrats working to turn out more voters in the state. His super PAC, American Bridge 21st Century, last week launched a fund to finance grass-roots efforts to encourage Black women in Virginia to go to the polls.

Virginia does not allow governors to serve consecutive terms, so McAuliffe, who led the state from 2014 to 2018, had to wait to run for another term. He has returned with a platform centered on experience and defending Virginia’s progress, touting low unemployment rates under his tenure, as well as laws that restored voting rights to people convicted of felonies and prohibited discrimination against state employees over their sexual orientation and gender identity.

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McAuliffe has recently sought to distance himself from Democrats in Washington who are having trouble pushing Biden’s infrastructure and social spending plans. He rarely invokes the president, his closing message instead underscoring Youngkin’s connection to Trump and his base of mostly white conservatives, including those who stormed the US Capitol on Jan. 6.

Youngkin, a former co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group private equity firm, is running as a business outsider. He’s focused his campaign on economic concerns and giving parents more say on local education. He’s also tried to tap into a movement against masks, vaccines, and government quarantine measures that has been brewing in Virginia since the earliest months of the pandemic.

At a brewery near downtown Newport News, a city that is home to a Navy shipyard, Youngkin took the stage in a signature fleece vest after supporters led the crowd in chants of “U-S-A” and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

“We have Terry McAuliffe on the run,” Youngkin shouted over cheers.

Youngkin’s supporters rejected Democrats’ portrayals of him as a Trump loyalist and argued Trump did not factor into the race. But the fears Trump exploited — of a changing United States and a perceived loss of American dominance — permeated surrogate speeches and voters’ concerns.

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“We cannot survive as a nation if we’re raising an entire generation of children to learn to hate your country,” said Jason Miyares, a Republican and former criminal prosecutor running for attorney general, taking aim at critical race theory. While critical race theory — which explores the intersection of race and US law — is typically taught at the college level, conservatives have used it to stoke fears of liberal indoctrination of younger public school students.

Still, culture war anxieties aren’t solely responsible for peeling off moderates and independents from McAuliffe and tightening the race. Kristian Ramos, a political consultant who has been analyzing polling data from Virginia, said Democrats could do more to reach out to voters — Black and Latino voters in particular — about the party’s efforts to tackle the pandemic and strengthen the social safety net for families.

“We have to reach people on an emotional, gut level and show them that we understand the economic anxiety they are facing during this moment and that we are fighting to address these challenges in their day-to-day lives,” he said.

At the McAuliffe rally in Richmond, speaker after speaker blasted Youngkin as a Trump “fan boy” and warned that under his leadership, Virginia could soon go the way of Texas.

“You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular old, hoops-playing, dishwashing, fleece-wearing guy but quietly consummate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama told the crowd.

Andre Hayes, 40, a designer in the Newport News shipyard who attended the event, said there is more at stake for Democrats than keeping Virginia from sliding back into Republican control. He wanted to know how Democrats plan to move the country forward on issues of climate change, racism, and rising income inequality. That, he said, would be the winning strategy in 2022 and 2024.

“A lot of people are going to be looking at Virginia,” he said. “I think we can get the thing going right now and start the new wave.”