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Gibson: Will McAuliffe's 'viral moment' during last debate swing undecideds to Youngkin?

Gibson: Will McAuliffe's 'viral moment' during last debate swing undecideds to Youngkin?


Virginia’s Nov. 2 election for governor appears to be coming down to the wire and so close that a Republican could win a statewide race for the first time since 2009.

GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, a 54-year-old retired private equity executive, is polling so close to former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, his better-known Democratic opponent, that top Virginia political analysts say either candidate can win.

McAuliffe’s razor-thin advantage in polls of likely voters may be offset by an enthusiasm gap that shows victory-starved Republicans may have an edge over Democrats, who traditionally are less likely to cast a ballot in a non-presidential year.

Voters’ feelings about COVID-19 issues such as vaccination mandates, the continuing influence of former President Donald Trump and racially coded concerns about teaching so-called critical race theory in public schools carry untested weight into the final days of voting.

Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says what Democrats do in Washington during the final weeks of the race could swing momentum. It could swing to McAuliffe if President Joe Biden advances his legislation and popularity, or it could have the opposite effect if stalemate continues.

“Do the Democrats in D.C. get their act together at last and pass the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better bill at whatever funding level?” Sabato wonders.

“That would increase Democratic enthusiasm, which has been lagging the Republican side. Biden’s job approval would go up and that would lift McAuliffe.”

Youngkin, a political newcomer who has a personal fortune in excess of $300 million, has his own worries in a statewide race that follows the American trend of the nationalization of politics at all levels.

He knows that he can be hurt if Trump continues to try to dominate GOP politics at all levels and cast blame for any Republican disloyalty.

Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington professor and director of UMW’s Center for Leadership and Media Studies, notes that the former president can harm the chances of the GOP nominee just by being too present.

“Glenn Youngkin’s strongest appeal is that he is not a Trump clone,” Farnsworth notes. “The more he acts and sounds like Trump, the more unappealing he will be to suburban voters who may have voted for Republicans like Mitt Romney or John McCain but found the former president unappealing.”

Both parties have decided this is above all an appeal to the base election, Farnsworth says. “Hence the focus on critical race theory and socialism on the one hand, and the drumbeat on Trump-Youngkin connections and the extreme Texas abortion laws on the other.”

Do voters blame Youngkin for Trump’s botched response to the deadly COVID-19 epidemic? Do they blame Youngkin for his messages to base voters telling them to seek exemptions to vaccination mandates, or do more voters like Youngkin’s message of personal freedom?

This has always been an election focused more on the continuing impacts of COVID than anything else, according to Farnsworth. “COVID has had, and continues to have, huge economic and health impacts in the way people in Virginia and those around the world go about their daily lives.”

If things get better in the coming weeks, Democrats can claim that their aggressive efforts to promote vaccinations and their other health care measures are working, the UMW political science professor says. “If things get worse Democrats can blame Republicans for refusing to follow safety protocols and get their shots.”

“The best-case scenario for Republicans is if things stay about the same with respect to COVID conditions — then the media will focus on other policy topics that are more favorable to the party and the Democrats won’t have anything to brag about,” Farnsworth adds.

Chris Saxman, a former GOP delegate from Staunton, says one factor in who wins this tight race is how much money will Republicans be able to spend to counter Democratic ads.

“Unless there is a national event that drives out the GOP, this thing is on a glide path to landing,” he says.

“There really are no more base issues to work on, but the McAuliffe viral moment during the last debate could make the difference in that race as well as several down ballot,” says Saxman, who directs the pro-business group Virginia Free. He is referring to the Democrat’s quote in the final debate that Youngkin pounced on in which McAuliffe said parents shouldn’t control what is taught in public schools.

The down-ballot races include the election for lieutenant governor between Hala Ayala, a Prince William County delegate running as the Democratic nominee, and Winsome Sears, the former Norfolk delegate running as the Republican nominee.

That contest, like the attorney general race between Democratic incumbent Mark Herring and GOP challenger Del. Jason Miyares, has polling with the Democrats holding narrow leads within the polling margins of error.

Other down-ballot contests include elections for all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. If a net gain of six of those races are won by Republicans challenging Democrats in blue seats, control of the House would hand Republicans the majority.

In a nationalized and polarized electorate featuring candidates making strong appeals to their party’s base, political observers are ruling nothing out. Princess Blanding, a third-party candidate and a Black woman who shows up in polling with 1% to 2% support, could be a factor trimming McAuliffe’s chances of returning as governor after a 4-year absence.

UVa’s Sabato says two factors that could see McAufille, 64, win another term as governor are a slight boost in Biden’s popularity or another setback for Youngkin again tying him to Trump, who lost Virginia in a landslide last year and is gearing up for another presidential run.

“Does Donald Trump intervene in any way, which would hurt Youngkin?” Sabato asks. “Trump has endorsed Youngkin several times, and Youngkin had adopted some of Trump’s themes, such as election integrity — as phony an issue in Virginia as it is nationally. Youngkin doesn’t need any reminder of his ties to Trump.”

An adage in politics that also could come into play in a close race is that the taller candidate usually wins.

Youngkin, at 6 foot 5 inches, carries a couple of inches advantage over McAuliffe in the tallest candidate contest.

Bob Gibson is a member of the Virginia Commission on Civic Education.

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