Virginia's race for governor is a test for Democrats' — and Trump's — staying power

Oct 28, 2021
Originally published on October 28, 2021 11:26 pm

Updated October 28, 2021 at 10:25 AM ET

Alan Mullis was so flattered that Republican Glenn Youngkin paid a pit stop in McKenney, Va., a town an hour south of Richmond — or as Mullis puts it, "the middle of boondocks" — that he says he delayed a chemotherapy treatment for his leukemia to see Youngkin.

"That's how important it is to me to meet Glenn Youngkin," the 75-year-old Mullis said. "Thank God for somebody like him running for office."

Republicans like Mullis are energized by polls showing a neck-and-neck race between Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe a week out from election day. Virginia's off-year elections are often seen as a proxy for national mood in a state President Biden won by 10 points. The race has tightened as Biden's approval ratings have dropped to the lowest point since he took office.

Mullis, a former police officer, likes Youngkin's backing of law enforcement. But for many GOP stalwarts gathered at the Flat Rock Country Store, it's as much about the mood as much as the message. Youngkin, a first-time politician, delivers celebrity energy in a fleece vest and cowboy boots. Supporters sign his tour bus and snap photos.

Democrats like Biden say Youngkin is just putting a suburban-dad sheen on the policies of former President Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly endorsed the businessman, and in a tweet late Wednesday, a spokesperson said that Trump would also campaign for him in Virginia. The Youngkin campaign did not respond to requests to comment, but Youngkin previously said he had no plans to campaign with the former president.

Supporters for Glenn Youngkin, Republican candidate for Virginia governor, gather in Stafford County on Oct. 19 to see him speak.
Crixell Matthews / VPM

Youngkin embraced Trump early in his campaign before pivoting to win over more moderate voters. Youngkin has also campaigned alongside supporters like Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who regularly repeats misinformation about the last election and is now making similar unsubstantiated claims in this race.

"Extremism can come in many forms," Biden said at a rally for McAuliffe on Tuesday. "It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile in a fleece vest."

McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014-2018, has brought a slew of high-profile supporters to hammer home the message that a vote for Youngkin is a vote for Trump. Former President Barack Obama, Vice President Harris and even musician Dave Matthews have made recent appearances in the commonwealth.

Youngkin rejects those comparisons. "If you look at the ballot today, what it says on it is Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe," the former private equity CEO says to cheers at his stop in McKenney. (A third-party candidate, activist Princess Blanding, is also on the ballot.)

For Democrats, the stakes are high. Losing Virginia would be a bad sign for next year's midterms. They haven't lost a statewide election in the commonwealth since 2009. McAuliffe says he always knew it would be close.

"I remind you for 44 straight years, the party that wins the White House, the other party wins the governor's mansion," McAuliffe said in an interview. "I'm the only guy to break it."

McAuliffe was also a wealthy businessman and first-time politician when he won the governor's race in 2013 after a failed attempt in 2009. He had found success as a well-connected Democratic fundraiser known for back-slapping and showy gestures, like wrestling an alligator to win a donation for Jimmy Carter's 1980 reelection campaign. This time, he's running on his record, touting experience he said voters want to see in a pandemic: "I was governor before, got us out of a horrible financial mess, created a record amount of 200,000 new jobs and made the state open and welcoming," he says.

Youngkin, Republican candidate for governor, speaks to a group of supporters in Stafford County, Va., on Oct. 19.
Crixell Matthews / VPM

Youngkin has directed his closing message at parents. He channeled conservative outrage over critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia schools. He often repeats the claims in daily appearances on Fox News, though he's much less available to local press.

This week, Youngkin launched a new ad featuring a conservative activist who said her son suffered nightmares after he read Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison's Beloved in his AP English class. McAuliffe twice vetoed the so-called "Beloved bill" championed by the activist. It would have allowed parents to request new readings for their child if the original included "sexually explicit content." McAuliffe's campaign handed out copies of the book at the Biden event on Tuesday and has called Youngkin's focus on the book "racist."

Youngkin denies he's getting into cultural wars. "It's not Republicans against Democrats anymore," he says. "This is Virginia and standing up for our rights, and particularly for the rights of our kids."

For some Democrats, the list of worries includes access to abortion and the pandemic. Two volunteers for the party, Elizabeth Balaschak and Gene Miles, kill time at their table outside an early voting location by discussing the impact they might have on the race. Balaschak just moved to the Richmond area from Florida, drawn by Virginia's increasingly blue tint. The backlash to Trump in these suburbs helped Democrats flip the state legislature. They passed a slew of laws, like raising the minimum wage and easing rules on abortion.

"My concern is if it starts to go toward Florida — I know a lot of people who moved out of Florida over the last few years because of the way the state is going," Balaschak says.

Balaschak's fellow volunteer, Miles, has noticed lower Democratic enthusiasm this year compared to the Trump era, when attendance at local party committees surged. She's watched Virginia see-saw between parties since she got involved in 1976, calling the state "a bluish shade of purple."

Over 850,000 people have already cast early ballots, and some models show Democrats with an edge. Both sides argue the stakes are higher than ever. Next week's election will show whether their voters agree.

Copyright 2021 VPM. To see more, visit VPM.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Voters are going to choose a new governor of Virginia on Tuesday, but Democrats are having to play defense in a state that President Biden won by 10 points. Polls show the race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe is in a dead heat. Here's Ben Paviour from member station VPM.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: McKenney, Va., is an hour south of Richmond, where the suburbs give way to farms. Or, as longtime resident Alan Mullis tells it...

ALAN MULLIS: I mean, this place is in the middle of the boondocks.

PAVIOUR: Mullis is flattered that Glenn Youngkin parked his bus outside the Flat Rock Country Store. It's a bend-in-the-road pit stop selling biscuits and hams. Mullis, who has leukemia, delayed his chemo treatment to come to this event.

MULLIS: That's how important it is to me to meet Glenn Youngkin. So thank God for somebody like him running for office.

PAVIOUR: Mullis likes Youngkin's backing of law enforcement. But for many supporters here, it's the mood as much as the message. The first-time politician brings celebrity energy in a fleece vest and cowboy boots. Supporters sign his tour bus and snap photos.

GLENN YOUNGKIN: All right, where's your camera? Right here?

PAVIOUR: Youngkin has directed his closing message at parents. He's channeled conservative outrage over critical race theory, which is not taught in Virginia schools.

YOUNGKIN: It's not Republicans against Democrats anymore. This is Virginians standing up for our rights and particularly for the rights of our kids.

PAVIOUR: It's a message he often takes to Fox News and a shift from earlier in his campaign, when he focused on the Trumpian theme of election integrity. Still, the former private equity CEO denies this race is about national politics.

YOUNGKIN: Well, I don't know about everybody else, but if you look at the ballot today, what it says on it is Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).

YOUNGKIN: That's what it says.

PAVIOUR: Well, there is a third name - third-party candidate Princess Blanding - but it's Youngkin and McAuliffe who are raising the big bucks. On Tuesday, McAuliffe campaigned with his old friend, President Biden. The president repeatedly connected Youngkin to Trump, who has endorsed the businessman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Extremism can come in many forms, can come in the rage of a mob driven in an assault - driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.

PAVIOUR: McAuliffe has brought in a number of heavy hitters, ranging from former President Barack Obama...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: This guy is the Energizer Bunny. He does not sleep. He does not stop.

PAVIOUR: ...To musician Dave Matthews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVE MATTHEWS: (Singing) So then save me, save me, Mr. Walking Man.

PAVIOUR: For Democrats, the stakes are high. Losing Virginia would be a bad omen for next year's midterms. They haven't lost a statewide election since 2009. McAuliffe says he always knew it would be close.

TERRY MCAULIFFE: I remind you, for 44 straight years, the party that wins the White House, the other party wins the governor's mansion.

PAVIOUR: The lone exception to that rule was McAuliffe, who won a tight governor's race in Virginia in 2013.

MCAULIFFE: I was governor before - got us out of a horrible financial mess, created a record amount of 200,000 new jobs, made the state open and welcoming.

PAVIOUR: McAuliffe's yard signs are a hot commodity on a windy day at an early voting location in Henrico County, just outside of Richmond.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I thought you'd be gone. I said, oh, I missed them.

ELIZABETH BALASCHAK: No, we're still here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, thank you.

PAVIOUR: Elizabeth Balaschak is staffing a Democratic table. She just moved here from Florida, drawn by Virginia's increasingly blue tint. Backlash to Trump in these Richmond suburbs helped Democrats flip the state legislature. They passed a slew of laws, like raising the minimum wage.

BALASCHAK: My concern is if it starts to go towards Florida, I know a lot of people who moved out of Florida in the last few years because of the way the state's going.

PAVIOUR: Now Virginia Democrats have to defend not just the governor's seat but their hold on the House of Delegates.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATTHRE HALSALL'S "THE END OF DUKKHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.