Time To Make The Donuts, Virginia Dems!
Virginia is a pretty weird state. For one thing, it insists it's not so much a state as a "commonwealth," which we suspect is all a scheme to sell replica flintlocks and tricorner hats. For another, it holds its state elections in off years, so with federal elections in even years, there's an election going on every damn year. Also, it doesn't allow governors to serve consecutive terms, which is why former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is running for his second term after four years of Ralph Northam being governor.
As The Nation's Joan Walsh reminds us, it's been a hell of a big few years in politics in Virginia. In 2017, Democrats fell just one seat short of winning the
state's commonwealth's House of Representatives Delegates, riding a surge of anti-Trump sentiment, and in 2019, Virginia went all blue, with Democrats taking a 55-seat majority in the House and winning the Senate too.
But in 2021, she says, many Virginia Dems worry the Republicans may be able to combine backlash against the 2020 election and perhaps a Democratic "enthusiasm gap" to reverse those gains. Or maybe not; it may also turn out that Democrats have learned better than to allow complacency to sneak in, and the increasing radicalism of the GOP will drive another surge of Democratic votes.
Walsh notes some potentially worrisome polling:
For Republicans, Virginia is the first stop for the anti-Biden resistance, and polls are showing a voter enthusiasm gap that so far favors the GOP. In a recent Washington Post poll, 76 percent of Republicans were following the election closely versus 61 percent of Democrats; among conservatives, it was 77 percent to just 56 percent of liberals.
And Terry McAuliffe, Walsh reports, is "having a tougher fight than expected against political newcomer Glenn Youngkin, a shape-shifting former Carlyle executive who is endorsed by Trump but trying to come off as a relative moderate." On Friday, she notes, the Cook Political Report switched the race from "lean Democrat" to "Toss-up," because "It's Youngkin who seems to have the enthusiasm on his side." Well that kind of sucks!
Several political consultants told Walsh they're concerned, too:
The majority is at risk in Virginia," DLCC's Jessica Post told me. "The polling shows that Democrats really could lose the House of Delegates," agrees Lyzz Schwegler, cofounder of Sister District. "There's a clear enthusiasm gap across the board, from volunteers to donors to voters." Christine Bachman, a Virginia digital consultant who got involved early in the 2017 cycle, is alarmed too. "Every warning sign is flashing."
On the other hand, she points out, the big outside groups that helped get out the votes to turn Virginia blue in the last four years are back in the state, the last two campaigns brought lots of very motivated women and Black candidates (and now officeholders) into the process, and the incumbents in the House "have a formidable fundraising advantage" over GOP challengers, so that's good stuff.
Much of Walsh's piece (read it if you have free Nation articles left this month) is a serious attempt to answer whether Democrats are really facing an enthusiasm gap in Virginia this year, or if the talk of Republicans threatening to roll back progress has a whiff of "the alarmist fundraising e-mail spam we see in every cycle?" On the whole, she doesn't think so, if only because "the three state legislative activists I quoted above are all normally optimists, maybe overly so," and because while money is rolling in, the Democratic campaigns so far seem to be short of people knocking on doors and making phone calls. And, as she notes, the structure of Virginia elections, either federal or state offices up every darn year, may have left some activists a bit exhausted, since they've
been on high alert from Hillary Clinton's race in 2016 (she won Virginia) through the 2017 resistance, the 2018 midterms (where a 7-4 GOP congressional delegation flipped to 7-4 Democrats), the 2019 off-year where they took over the General Assembly, and of course, the 2020 election, when Biden doubled Clinton's winning margin to 10 points. That took a lot of work.
That's translated into real electoral gains, and some very good legislation being passed in Virginia. Medicaid expansion finally was passed, and voting rights have been expanded; some previous Republican restrictions on abortion were rolled back, and the Assembly passed pay increases for teachers and first responders as well as an increase in the minimum wage (it went to $9.50 an hour in May, and will reach $12 an hour come 2023. The final increases on the way to $15 an hour will require a follow-up vote in the next session).
Walsh also notes that some Dems in Virginia worry that the fretting about 2019 could be counterproductive, and that it's serving as an excuse to channel funds and get out the vote efforts into defending incumbent seats when those resources might be used to challenge Republicans and actually expand Democratic power in both houses of the Assembly. And, she notes, McAuliffe is hoping that Gavin Newsom's win in the California recall bodes well, since Republicans in Virginia seem as nuts about resisting public health measures as Republicans anywhere else: "Democrats are now touting polling that shows majorities of Virginians backing vaccine and mask mandates, especially in schools and health care facilities."
And then there's the Trump Factor. Walsh notes that even after getting Trump's endorsement, Youngkin has been "trying to subtly squirm out of Donald Trump's embrace," but Jabba seems to have noticed, telling a wingnut radio host last week,
The only guys that win are the guys that embrace the MAGA movement. [...] When they try to go down a railroad track, you know, "Hey, oh yeah, sure, love it, love it. Oh, yeah, love Trump. Love Trump. Okay, let's go, next subject." When they do that, nobody, they don't—they never win. They never win. They have to embrace it.
If Youngkin does try to be Trumpier, that could lose votes from the moderates he also wants to reach, notes Walsh, so Youngkin has tried to avoid giving straight answers on several key issues, like abortion. Although Youngkin says he wouldn't support a Texas-style abortion ban, he was caught on tape by a tricksy progressive pretending to be an anti-abortion activist, saying
that he supported her goals but couldn't say that in the campaign.
"When I'm governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense [on abortion restrictions]," he told her. "But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won't win my independent votes that I have to get…. I will not go squishy, but I got to win in order to stand up for the unborn."
Similarly, Youngkin waffled recently on his basic commitment to democracy, not giving a clear answer when Axios asked if he would have certified the election for Joe Biden if he'd been in Congress on January 6. If Youngkin and other Republicans keep getting more loudly Trumpy, she says, that might be just the boost to get Democrats engaged this fall.
Let's hope so; if you can, Wonkers, you might want to see how you can help out with volunteering or donations right here. Wouldn't it be great if Virginia Dems once again had the "problem" of having a ton of volunteers to find places for?
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