President Joe Biden, right, next to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, on Tuesday, October 26, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. Most of the Democratic heavy-hitters have stumped for McAuliffe, including the former President Barack Obama and Georgia's Stacey Abrams. McAuliffe will face Republican Glenn Youngkin in the November election. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

An unexpectedly close race for governor and control of the state House of Delegates in Virginia raises questions for how Republicans may win back suburban voters that peeled away from the party during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Polling of the race between Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin has shown McAuliffe with a consistent but tiny lead that still falls within the margin of error. Republicans have held control of statewide government as recently as 2013, but haven’t won a statewide election since 2009. 

“I think it’s a pretty competitive race,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “This is one of the first big tests for the White House after a presidential election. The president’s party usually does worse in the governor’s race compared to how they did in the presidential. Democrats still have a lot of slack there — Biden won the state by 10 points — but both parties are behaving like this is a competitive race.”

McAuliffe won a hotly contested race for governor in 2013, but the state constitution limits governors to a single consecutive term. He defeated five more progressive candidates, including three Black candidates and two women, in a Democratic primary and now is running to become only the second governor in state history to serve two terms since the 1970s.

Youngkin, meanwhile, is a first-time candidate who defeated six other Republicans in a “drive-through convention” to seize the GOP nomination. Youngkin spent 25 years at private-equity firm The Carlyle Group, rising to become its CEO until stepping down in the fall of 2020 to run for governor.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin gestures during a rally in Glen Allen, Virginia., Saturday, October 23, 2021. Youngkin will face Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Neither campaign answered questions sent by the Daily Yonder, but in previous interviews, both McAuliffe and Youngkin argued they’ll best benefit rural Virginia.

“When I was governor, I reduced unemployment,” McAuliffe said in a Virginia Business interview. “We were practically full employment when I left office, and we’ve reduced unemployment in every city and county in Virginia. Nearly every rural county saw a reduction of nearly 50% … I brought a record amount of jobs to rural parts of our state, and we can take it to the next level.”

McAuliffe, whose website includes a policy page on rural economic development, said he’d tout Virginia’s agriculture and forestry products in overseas markets and attract companies and investment to rural areas. He also named broadband internet and teacher pay as priorities to boost rural communities.

Younkin named high-speed broadband internet infrastructure as “the enabler” for economic development in southwestern and rural Virginia. He also touted the region’s agricultural economy and called for more development of work sites and large industrial parks.

“There are real opportunities for us to press forward in Southwest Virginia and Southside Virginia around sectors that we can attract and build,” Youngkin said. “We must prepare our workforce for these opportunities as well. Today, we’ve seen the sad reality that across Virginia we’ve lost our focus on career and technical education.”

Ebbs and Flows of Political Power and the Trump Effect

As much as any state in the country, Virginia exemplified the radical effect Donald Trump had on political shifts in the suburban vote.

When Trump was elected president in 2016, Republicans held an 8-3 advantage in congressional seats. Democrats flipped four seats in the 2018 midterms and now hold seven seats to the Republicans’ four. Last year, Trump lost Virginia by 10 percentage points. 

Virginia is one of only two states to hold its election for governor the year following the presidential races. That and political geography that reflects national patterns puts heavy scrutiny on Virginia’s gubernatorial races from political observers looking for early clues for next year’s midterms. 

“The story is the same in Virginia that it is in many other places,” Kondik said. “Democratic strength in rural areas has been ebbing. That predates Trump, but Trump accelerated it. Meanwhile, Democratic strength in the suburbs and exurbs has been growing over time.”

In some states, especially in the Midwest, that tradeoff has worked out for Republicans as Democrats saw their share of the vote in small towns evaporate. In Virginia, it’s been the opposite. Growing GOP margins in the rural southwestern and southern parts of the state have been swamped by population growth in Democratic-leaning metro counties. 

Take Dickenson County, Virginia, a 100% rural county in the southwestern coalfields. In the 2012 presidential race, county voters went for Republican Mitt Romney over Democrat Barack Obama 62% to 36%. Eight years later, Trump won 79% of the vote to Joe Biden’s 21%. But the county also lost 11% of its population from 2010 to 2020, dropping to only 14,124 residents.

Compare that to Loudoun County, Virginia, a Washington, D.C., exurb that’s only about 12% rural. Meanwhile, the county went from supporting Democrats by a 5 percentage point margin in 2012 to 15 points in 2020. The 2020 census saw its population grow by an eye-popping 35% to 420,959. It’s 30 times the size of Dickenson County, in terms of population. 

That’s why, Kondik said, rural Virginia won’t be enough for Republicans to win the state in 2021, even if they do manage to improve on Trump’s margins in those areas. 

“If Youngkin wins, an overwhelming margin in rural Virginia would be part of that, but he needs to pair that with improvements over recent Republican performance in more populous areas,” Kondik said. 

Strategizing the Takeover

That would include making inroads in places like Loudoun and Chesterfield counties. Chesterfield, a suburb of the Richmond metro area, supported Republicans through 2016, delivering a narrow 48% to 46% win for Trump. But Democrats flipped it in the 2017 gubernatorial and 2020 presidential elections, winning the latter 52%-48%. Those flips were an integral part of Democratic victories in congressional and state legislative races as well. 

As part of the backlash against Trump, Democrats flipped both chambers of the state legislature in 2019. The election marked the first time Democrats had controlled the House of Delegates, the 100-seat lower chamber which holds elections every two years, since the 1990s. The new Democratic majority instituted significant policy changes, committing to phase out coal and transition Virginia’s electric grid to 100% clean energy by 2050, legalizing marijuana and sports betting, and increasing the state’s minimum wage.

In November, however, Republicans are aiming to win control of the House of Delegates as well as governor and two other statewide posts, lieutenant governor and attorney control. Winning back suburban voters the party lost during the Trump years is a key part of making that happen.

“If Republicans don’t make big inroads into places like Chesterfield and Loudoun, first of all, they probably won’t win,” Kondik said. “But also, it’s one thing if Trump is on the ballot and you don’t do well in those places. But it’s another if you have someone not stylistically a lot like Trump, and those places continue to trend Democratic, or very least Republicans don’t make up a lot of ground. That’s worrying for longterm Republican prospects in Virginia.”

Youngkin has aimed his campaign squarely at those suburban voters by leading with education as a top issue. His platform largely build on explosive school board meetings throughout the state, where angry parents have complained about mask mandates, LGBTQ-friendly policies and teaching about race. 

In particular, conservative-leaning parents have railed about “critical race theory” — an academic lens that can be turned to view the country’s history and institutions through their relationships with race. These charged school board meetings are taking place around the country, but the county that seems to be the epicenter, so far as media attention, is Loudoun County — the same locality that moved 10 points toward Democrats since 2012.

“There’s been a lot of focus on Loudoun with these school board battles,” Kondik said. “Youngkin has made a big issue of that in this campaign. How much does this pay off? We’ll find out.”

Educators deny that critical race theory is being taught in schools, but Youngkin says he’ll ban it. Additionally, Youngkin’s called for tax cuts and criticized the state administrator under McAuliffe and his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, for not doing more to create jobs and grow business. He’s simultaneously deemphasized GOP red meat issues such as abortion and fealty to Trump.

Toxic Party Baggage 

McAuliffe, a quasi-incumbent who should be riding momentum from 12 years of Democratic wins statewide, has leaned hard into those national wedge issues. His ads frequently mention Trump, playing up the former president’s endorsement of Youngkin and his participation in an October rally that also featured Steve Bannon. Youngkin did not attend the rally; instead, his campaign issued a news release titled “It is Weird and Wrong to Pledge Allegiance to A Flag Connected to January 6” responding to rally attendees pledging allegiance to an American flag that was present at the January insurrection.

Trump lost Virginia to Biden last year by 10 points, but recent polls show more Virginians now disapprove of Biden’s performance than approve. In a state whose economy is closely tied to the federal government and the military, McAuliffe has called for Democrats to accelerate the passage of a “hard” infrastructure bill and accompanying spending package supporting social programs.

In something of a role reversal from McAuliffe’s first win during the Obama years, then, Virginia Democrats want to nationalize the elections, while Republicans are trying to prevent just that.

“Before 2017, it was Republicans who wanted to nationalize Virginia races and Democrats who felt the need to distance themselves from the national party,” Kondik said. “That’s a broader story of Democrats in the South, at least in recent history. This time, Terry McAuliffe is very desperate to nationalize this race and is bringing in national Democratic figures [like Biden, Obama, and Georgia politician Stacey Abrams]. Glenn Youngkin doesn’t want to nationalize the race. He wants to keep some distance from Trump because he needs people who voted for Biden last time to vote Republican.”

Democrats hold a 55-45 majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, but their legislative control of the chamber is only two years old. Republicans are running to reassert control. Their success or failure likely comes down to a handful of largely suburban races, along with GOP efforts to target the westernmost Democrat in Virginia.

Virginia Senator Creigh Deeds, a western Virginia Democrat who is not up for reelection this year, has served long enough to see dramatic change in rural voters’ partisan preferences.

“When I first came to the legislature [in 1992], everything in the legislature came through rural Virginia,” Deeds said. “Rural Democrats ran most of the committees. To see that shift is tough, but things change. Nothing’s forever. And we’ll just have to get through it.”

The longtime legislator has lived in 100% rural Bath County for nearly his entire life, but the county voted 73%-26% for Trump in 2020. Part of what’s ensured his reelection over the last decade has been the inclusion of Democratic-voting Charlottesville in his district, but it will likely be drawn out in redistricting, leaving him with a hard decision.

“We’re going to get it figured out,” Deeds said. “I either run where I am, I move somewhere else in the area I now represent, or I’ll decide I’ve had a good run and the time is up. I don’t feel like the time is up right now.”

A new bipartisan redistricting commission was tasked with redrawing legislative districts this year but failed to reach consensus, sending the job to the Virginia Supreme Court. 

Those new districts will shape Virginia’s political future. For now, Virginia voters face another choice. Early voting already has begun. Election Day is Tuesday, November 2.