RICHMOND, Va. – Richard Stuart, a longtime Republican state senator in Virginia, got three days' notice this summer to help pull together a weekday campaign event for Glenn Youngkin, the GOP candidate for governor.
To his surprise and delight, some 200 people showed up from across his district, which stretches from the Washington exurbs into more rural communities. The crowd was eager to meet Youngkin, the businessman and political newcomer hoping to break a 12-year GOP losing streak in statewide elections and keep Democratic candidate and former governor Terry McAuliffe from a second term.
“I am seeing more enthusiasm than I've seen for a statewide Republican candidate since I can remember,” said Stuart, who's represented his district since 2008.
That type of strong showing, combined with some new polling, is fueling optimism among Republicans, who have been largely shut out of state government in recent years, as one of this year’s most competitive and expensive political matchups enters its final six-week stretch. And while Democrats are confident that they will still come out on top, some of McAuliffe’s supporters are nervous.
"This election appears to be closer than we would prefer,” said Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, an influential group that spends heavily to support Democrats almost exclusively and has endorsed McAuliffe. “Republicans have a motivation advantage, an enthusiasm advantage.”
McAuliffe, who was in office from 2014 to 2018 and who ran away with the Democratic primary in June, has generally led in public polling, but recent surveys suggest the race may have tightened. A poll conducted this month by The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University showed McAuliffe with 50% support among likely voters to Youngkin’s 47%, within the margin of error.
In order to prevail, Youngkin will have to overcome several vulnerabilities in this increasingly moderate state. As the U.S. Supreme Court considers the future of abortion rights, Democrats say Youngkin is too extreme on the issue. And Democrats are doing everything they can to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who is unpopular in large swaths of northern Virginia where the race may be decided.
Trump may have done Youngkin few favors this week by pushing him to back his agenda.
“The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement," Trump said Thursday on the John Fredericks Radio Show when discussing Youngkin's candidacy.
But Republicans in Virginia are feeling good about Youngkin in part because they think he is the type of candidate who can prevail. Tall and polished, the former investment executive has cast himself as a down-to-earth family man.
More substantively, he has spent much of this year trying to steer clear of some contentious culture war issues that Republicans in other parts of the country have embraced. He has said little, for instance, about gun control or the recent removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond. He did, however, make “election integrity” a key part of his platform during the nominating contest, and has vowed to ban the teaching of critical race theory, which explores the history of America through the lens of racism.
In some ways, his messaging marks a shift from other Republicans who have sought statewide office in recent years. In 2017, Ed Gillespie ran for governor as an establishment candidate before taking a hard turn on immigration policy and the status of Confederate statues. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by nearly nine percentage points.
The following year, Corey Stewart, an immigration hard-liner who defended “Confederate heritage,” won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and was handily defeated by Democrat Tim Kaine.
Garren Shipley, a longtime GOP operative and the spokesman for the House GOP caucus, said other Republicans on the ballot this year are eager to campaign with Youngkin, something he said hasn’t always been the case for moderates in swing districts.
“I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t want to be seen on stage with Glenn Youngkin,” he said.
The election could hinge on whether voters approve of the way Democrats have managed Virginia.
Democrats took full control of state government in the 2019 elections, following huge gains in 2017. Since then, they've passed reams of progressive legislation unthinkable just a handful of years ago, ending the death penalty, mandating utilities shift to renewable energy, legalizing marijuana, expanding LGBTQ protections and loosening abortion restrictions.
The challenge now is ensuring Democrats get as excited to vote to protect those gains as they were to send a message to Trump.
“The significant progress that we’ve made — from my standpoint on climate change, climate action — could all be lost in a heartbeat on Nov. 2," Town said.
The election will almost certainly be viewed as an early referendum on the first year of Joe Biden's presidency. A McAuliffe loss would send a major signal to Democrats that their control of Congress is at serious risk in next year's midterm elections.
Democrats were cheered by the results this month in California, where Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated an effort to kick him out of office early. Like Newsom, McAuliffe has sought to highlight his opponent's ties to Trump and opposition to pandemic precautions. In recent days, he's slammed Youngkin for his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates.
"The Virginia governor’s race is a tight race — and it was always going to be. Terry has run a campaign laser focused on the issues Virginians care most about: the economy, education and ending this pandemic by getting Virginians vaccinated," said Christina Freundlich, a McAuliffe campaign spokeswoman.
McAuliffe's campaign says their path to victory involves hanging on to northern Virginia and other suburban areas and mobilizing communities of color. Republicans will need to cut into their edge outside of Washington and in other urban areas, including the capital city, Richmond, plus keep up their turnout in rural strongholds.
“Republicans definitely have more enthusiasm but they have less numbers," said Albert Pollard, a former Democratic House delegate.
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said Virginians “want to move on."
“Democrats are nervous that the only person excited for a known liar, failed governor and 40-year politician Terry McAuliffe is Terry McAuliffe," she said.
Several structural factors are seen as helping Republicans this year, including a long-running pattern of Virginia voters turning against the party in control of the White House during their unusual off-year governor's races. (Notably, McAuliffe bucked that trend with his win in 2013.)
Youngkin, the wealthy former co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, is his campaign's biggest donor. He's already poured at least $17.5 million into his own campaign, according to finance records maintained by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.
He's outpaced McAuliffe, a prodigious, well-connected fundraiser, so far in TV ad spending, according to an accounting of federal disclosure forms compiled by Kantar Media and published by VPAP, though McAuliffe entered the final two months of the campaign with an advantage in cash on hand.
There's a progressive activist and third-party candidate, Princess Blanding, on the ballot who might pull voters away from McAuliffe. And Youngkin could be helped by a candidate not being on the ballot: Trump.
“Glenn Youngkin has the best atmosphere that you could really ask for as a Republican,” said Democratic strategist Ben Tribbett, who added that he sees reason for Democrats to be concerned at this point, but not panicked.