At a corn maze and pumpkin patch in northern Virginia this month, former Carlyle chief executive Glenn Youngkin set out his stall.
Dressed in a Nantucket red fleece vest, navy khaki trousers and a white collared shirt, the private equity boss turned politician confidently told hundreds of supporters that next month, he would be elected Virginia’s governor.
“We stood up, and we said, you know what? We are going to absolutely reject this left, liberal, progressive policy agenda,” Youngkin said to cheers.
Youngkin (54) is a Republican, running in a southern state where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by more than 10 points in last November's presidential election. Virginia is a state – officially called a "commonwealth" – that many pundits had written off as "blue" Democratic territory.
In 2017, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in the governor's race there by nearly nine points, driven in large part by a swell of support in affluent suburban areas outside of Washington, DC, that had historically trended Republican yet rebuked Trump's presidency.
But now, four years later, with Biden's approval ratings falling precipitously, the rare "off-year" governor's election in Virginia is widely seen as too close to call. Pollsters and non-partisan analysts are billing the race as a "toss up" – and warning that a victory for Youngkin on November 2nd could spell disaster for Democrats in next year's midterm elections, when control of the US House of Representatives, Senate and dozens more governors' mansions will be up for grabs.
Whatever the outcome, the Virginia contest will be seen as an important barometer of US political sentiment one year on from Biden’s victory – and a key test of whether the spectre of Trump still looms large in the minds of voters.
For Democrats the election comes at a crucial time, when Biden's presidency has been plagued by public discontent over the lingering Covid-19 pandemic and rising consumer prices, as well as Democratic Party infighting that has stalled the president's ambitious legislative agenda.
Republicans, meanwhile, see the Virginia race as an opportunity to regain ground lost during the Trump era, and chart a path for more victories in next year’s midterms. For Youngkin, that means mobilising Trump’s ever loyal supporters while also trying to appeal to the moderate suburban voters whose rejection of the former president was a main driver of Democrats’ recent successes at the ballot box.
“Virginia was a deep blue state in the Trump era,” says Ben Tribbett, a veteran Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “I don’t think anyone knows what our identity is ... post-Trump.”
The latest statewide poll from the Washington Post showed Youngkin trailing his Democratic opponent, the state’s 64-year-old former governor Terry McAuliffe, among likely voters by just three points – within the margin of error – with McAuliffe on 50 and Youngkin at 47.
The same poll also gave Youngkin, who is seeking elected office for the first time, a 52-44 lead among independents – a group that favoured Biden by 19 points according to last year’s exit polls.
It demonstrated potential weaknesses for McAuliffe in the northern Virginia suburbs that fan out from Washington, and suggested a larger share of Republicans than Democrats were planning to show up at the polls at a time when voter turnout is expected to be significantly lower than in a presidential election year. A CBS News poll out last week produced near identical results.
"The McAuliffe campaign should be deeply concerned," says Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, which co-sponsored the Washington Post poll. "The survey indicates that Republicans are just a little bit more hungry, a little bit more motivated, more willing to say they definitely plan to vote.
“If Democratic voters are demotivated and Republican voters are hungry, I think that is meaningful,” Rozell adds. “That potentially could show here in Virginia, and signal to the national Democratic Party that they have got a big worry going into next year.”
At the Winchester pumpkin farm in the DC exurbs, the 6ft 7in-tall Youngkin rattled through policy plans that echoed many of the national Republican Party’s talking points: lower taxes, more money for law enforcement and a sharp rebuke of “critical race theory” in schools.
He nodded briefly to his 25-year career at Carlyle Group, where he stepped down as co-chief executive in July 2020. Youngkin's biography on Twitter makes no mention of his private equity record – he has loaned his campaign nearly $16 million (€13.8 million) –- instead describing himself as a "former dishwasher, basketball player and businessman".
“In my world, if you were running a business and one of your competitors grew 70 per cent faster for eight years straight, you would fire management,” Youngkin said at the farm, in a reference to the relative economic outperformance of Virginia’s neighbouring states in recent years.
But in a nearly half-hour speech, two words were notably absent: Donald Trump.
Despite the apparent popularity of the former president with those in the crowd – several attendees wore bright red Make America Great Again baseball caps, and described themselves as “proud Trumpers” – Youngkin made no mention of the former president, who has publicly endorsed him at least five times.
Virginia political insiders say it demonstrates a calculated choice by Youngkin, who is seeking to position himself to suburban voters as a "country club" Republican: a pragmatic, common sense white-collar conservative in the mould of an early career Mitt Romney, who was a co-founder of Bain Capital before becoming the Republican governor of the traditionally Democratic state of Massachusetts.
Strategists say the branding could win back a critical mass of former Republicans in places that rejected Trump but are now disillusioned with the current White House and Democratic infighting in Congress, where talks have stalled on Biden's ambitious spending plans.
McAuliffe and his allies, meanwhile, accuse Youngkin of being two-faced, projecting a more moderate persona in televised debates and campaign stops in northern Virginia, while adopting Trump’s talking points in conservative media interviews and in-person appearances in more rural “red” southern parts of the state.
McAuliffe frequently cites a comment Youngkin made on a conservative radio show in May, saying: “President Trump represents so much of why I am running.” And McAuliffe’s team highlights Youngkin’s inconsistent statements echoing Trump’s “big lie” that last year’s presidential election was stolen from him.
Youngkin has said “election integrity” is a priority for his campaign, and earlier this month called for an audit of voting machines in the state.
In an interview with Axios last month, Youngkin declined to say whether he would have voted to certify the election if he were a member of Congress on January 6th, when violent mobs of the former president’s supporters stormed the US Capitol and sought to overturn Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Amid a backlash, Youngkin quickly changed his tune, telling a local television network he “absolutely” would have voted to certify Biden’s win.
The clumsy messaging reflects the tightrope Youngkin and Republicans across the country must walk if they are to embrace Trump’s loyal base of supporters but also win back independents and former Republican voters. At the same time, they need to contend with Trump himself, who despite being banned from all major social media platforms after the events of January 6th frequently wades into public debates and toys with another run at the White House in 2024.
Last month, Trump, who has not joined Youngkin on the Virginia campaign trail, criticised the candidate’s tactics, telling a conservative radio host he needed to do more to “embrace the Maga movement”.
More recently, Trump phoned into a Republican rally in the state headlined by Steve Bannon, the ex-strategist who the former president pardoned on his final day at the White House earlier this year. Bannon had been charged last year by federal prosecutors in New York with defrauding hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters who donated to a crowdfunding campaign to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Youngkin did not attend the rally with Bannon, but was caught in the crosshairs after it was reported that attendees said the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag flown at the January 6th rally. Youngkin quickly sought to distance himself from the event, issuing a statement the next day calling it “weird and wrong” to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to the siege at the Capitol.
Most establishment Republicans in Virginia back Youngkin’s approach, insisting it provides him with the clearest path to victory next month.
"The last four years of Virginia were just about: were you for or against Donald Trump?" says J Tucker Martin, a longtime party operative in the state. "It really was that simplistic."
Now, Republicans and Democrats alike admit that with Trump on the sidelines, the current political environment is less clear cut – and the Democratic gains in the state are more tenuous than many in the president’s party had hoped.
“People really underestimated how the political environment would change with Donald Trump out of the Oval Office, and off Twitter,” says Martin. “It has changed from almost a difference from living in a hurricane to seeing a thunderstorm go by: he is still around, but he is not the same force.”
McAuliffe is betting that a majority of Virginia voters still see themselves as Democrats, and will turn out en masse on election day in a rebuke of Trump and his party.
The Democrats recognise that opposition to Trump’s presidency was a significant mobilising force for their base of supporters in recent years – and are determined to remind Democratic voters daily that Youngkin and Trump are batting for the same team, even if the former president is no longer front and centre in Washington.
Beyond trying to draw a straight line from Trump to Youngkin, McAuliffe and his team have also repeatedly argued to voters that electing the former Carlyle executive would be akin to importing a Republican governor like Greg Abbott from Texas – who recently sparked national outrage by signing into law a bill banning abortions after six weeks – or Florida's Ron DeSantis, whose lack of Covid restrictions in his state have sharply divided public opinion.
A longtime Democratic fundraiser and close ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe served as Virginia's governor once before, from 2013 to 2017, and is running in part on the accomplishments of his previous administration, including his efforts to persuade several large corporations, including Nestlé, to move their headquarters to the state. Virginia law does not allow governors to serve back-to-back terms.
At campaign events, McAuliffe is keen to remind voters that he was the first politician in more than four decades to break a “curse” that meant the victors in Virginia governor’s races were always from the opposite party to the one in the White House; McAuliffe’s 2013 victory bucked the trend, coming on the heels of Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012.
But as the polls have tightened, McAuliffe has not shied away from placing blame on his Democratic colleagues across the Potomac, insisting that the president's poor approval ratings are weighing on his campaign. McAuliffe has also argued voters are fed up by the impasse on Capitol Hill that means both the president's $1.2 trilllion infrastructure package and his bigger $3.5 trillion investment in the US's social safety net are at risk of never becoming law.
“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington, as you know. The president is unpopular today unfortunately here in Virginia. So we have got to plough through,” McAuliffe told supporters in a recent video clip that quickly went viral.
According to an average compiled by FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 44.8 per cent, with 49.5 per cent disapproving. That is still well above Trump’s lowest rating during his term in office of 36.4 per cent, but represents a sharp drop for the president over the summer as he has faced criticism of his handling of everything from the economy to foreign policy to immigration.
When asked at a recent campaign stop in Dumfries – about an hour south of the federal capital – why he had called the president unpopular, McAuliffe said the lingering Covid-19 pandemic was taking a toll.
“I think the president has done a great job on Covid, but I think it has just been exhausting for people,” McAuliffe added, noting that many Americans were still wearing masks and avoiding social gatherings because a significant share of their neighbours remained unvaccinated.
But the former governor rejected suggestions that Biden was keeping his distance from the campaign with less than three weeks until polling day. Asked if he would campaign with the president before the election, McAuliffe replied: “You bet.”
The McAuliffe campaign later confirmed events with vice-president Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, the first lady, as well as a rare appearance from former president Obama. The White House has not announced any further events for the president in Virginia.
The eleventh-hour support from big-name Democrats underscores just how high the stakes are for the president’s party in Virginia as they look ahead to next year’s midterms. Democrats currently control both chambers of Congress by razor-thin margins, and fear that even a handful of losses could see them cede control to the Republicans.
Brad Komar, who ran Northam's campaign in Virginia four years ago and now works for House Majority PAC, a super-Pac ot fundraising committee focused on retaining Democrats' control of the House of Representatives, says the voter turnout and result in Virginia could provide an indication of where things are heading in 2022.
“Nobody knows the answer to this until election day ... With Trump out of office, do Democrats maintain their gains in the suburbs? Do Trump voters turn out without him on the ballot?” Komar says. “Honestly, we are all just guessing at this point.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021