The level that Democratic campaigns in Virginia have focused on Trump in recent months made the off-year election the biggest test to date of whether the former president, who drove historic Democratic participation during the years when he was either on the ballot or in power, still motivates the party base to vote in extraordinary numbers. This lesson, determined by how Virginia’s close races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general will end on November 2, will reverberate through the Democratic Party for years to come, as official party committees and outside organizations are trying to figure out how to motivate voters after Trump’s four years in the White House.
McAuliffe, a candidate who rarely gets too subtle, has not mince words in tying Youngkin to Trump, who remains unpopular in Virginia a year after losing the Commonwealth by 10 points. His ads pilloried Youngkin as Trump’s sidekick, the former Democratic governor repeatedly called him a Trump “wannabe” and, in the final weeks of the campaign, McAuliffe warns that Youngkin and Trump ” run together ”and the former president“ wants to use this election to get him off the rug and get him ready for 2024. ”
“Despite what some are saying,” said Susan Swecker, President of the Virginia Democratic Party, “Trump and his platform are also on the ballot. ”
The power of that message is particularly important this year, with Democrats fearing that their electoral base – which could be depleted by a relentless stream of what they have been told to be critical elections – is now less interested in running for the month. November. election. Polls confirmed those fears, with Republican enthusiasm for the race far exceeding Democratic enthusiasm.
But voters like Zaragoza and others also expressed concern on Thursday evening that some of their friends were not so engaged in the race.
Adina Wells, 58, who attended McAuliffe’s rally with Harris, said many of her friends are “not as engaged” in the gubernatorial race as they were in the presidential election. a year earlier because “some of them don’t realize that if you have someone supporting (Trump in power) it might help them. ”
“I don’t want him to come back,” Wells said of Trump. “It’s a motivator. ”
To counter those concerns, McAuliffe and his top surrogates have sought to motivate Democrats with basic issues like abortion and what they see as a responsible response to Covid-19 while warning that a victory for Youngkin would be a victory for Trump – who has not campaigned here for the Republican candidate.
“Democrats are always excited about Trump,” said David Turner, senior official with the Democratic Governors Association, adding that the message is especially important “when turnout is uncertain and we need to motivate people to vote.”
Renae Schumann, a voter who stopped by the Chesterfield County early polling station last week to vote for McAuliffe, is among those voters.
“Absolutely, he’s on the ballot too,” Schumann said of Trump. “If you are not actively against him, I have the impression that you are for him. Youngkin has by no means shown or stated that he was against him, so in my mind it’s clear. ”
A bigger test than California
Youngkin has notably sought to localize the race, battling its nationalization in a state that has distanced itself from Republicans in the recent federal election.
“I’m on the ballot, I’m running against Terry McAuliffe,” Youngkin recently told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny. “Terry McAuliffe wants someone other than Terry McAuliffe to campaign, he invites the world to come and campaign with him. ”
And his campaign argues that recent polls showing racing is a dead head are the result of McAuliffe making “his campaign all about the past, while Glenn Youngkin has focused on his positive outlook on the past. to come up “.
“Now McAuliffe is sinking and desperate, which is why he’s calling on a failed presidential candidate from California to campaign with him,” Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said of the visit. by Harris. “We’ve said all along that the only person excited about McAuliffe is McAuliffe, and we were right. ”
Democrats often cite California as proof that the focus on Trump in an election works. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, managed to fend off a recall attempt by continuously hitting his Republican opponent, Larry Elder, as Trump’s sidekick in a state that overwhelmingly rejected the former president near a year earlier.
But Biden won California by nearly 30 points. The Golden State, which has an enrollment advantage of nearly two for a Democrat over a Republican, is not Virginia, making the Nov. 2 contest the most notable test of Trump’s ability to train. Democrats ahead of the 2022 midterm. And while New Jersey also hosted a gubernatorial race on Nov. 2, the state is also much bluer than Virginia.
“If Trump’s influence had really died out on Jan.21, 2021, you might see a very different campaign today,” said Geoff Burgan, one of the leading strategists of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “But what we do know is that Trump and many Republicans, including the statewide ticket in Virginia, have dubbed the Big Lie, mock audits and questioned the fundamentals of the democracy. ”
Burgan added, “Donald Trump is one of the Democrats’ most powerful weapons of participation. No doubt about it. ”
That’s why Democrats took advantage of a recent Republican rally in Virginia where Trump called the event and hailed the Republican nominee as a “gentleman” and someone he hopes “gets in there.”
McAuliffe wasted no time jumping on the event, turning it into an advertisement and a powerful fundraising tool that raised over $ 2 million, according to his team.
Location vs. nationalization
Youngkin’s strategy – focusing on local issues like education and the economy and less on national trends – is reminiscent of what Republicans did in New Jersey in 2009, where Democrats sought to transform the race for office. governor in a referendum on former President George W. Bush and relied on then-President Barack Obama, who had just won the state by more than 15 percentage points in 2008. Republicans also won the governor’s mansion of Virginia that year.
“Youngkin clearly wants this to be a race that is decided on state and local matters and Democrats want it to be on federal matters. But that’s what you would typically see in a very blue state, ”said Mike DuHaime, who worked as the chief strategist for former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s successful 2009 campaign. Like Youngkin, Christie called on few surrogates, and DuHaime said the campaign turned down visits from former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin because they wanted to avoid a nationalized contest in a Blue State.
The biggest difference between 2009 and now, however, is the dislike of Trump.
The strategy “shows Virginia’s change in ideology more than anything else,” said DuHaime. “But Trump is very different from George W. Bush. Trump wants to stay at the center of things. George W. Bush has passed out and as unpopular as Bush is, there is a difference between being unpopular and being vitriolic hated. ”
Even as McAuliffe puts the race against Trump at the heart of his campaign, Democrats in Northern Virginia fear the warnings about Trump may not be as powerful as they once were with the ousted former president.
Rep. Don Beyer, who has represented much of Northern Virginia since 2015, said everything that has been accomplished in Virginia over the past eight years is “at risk with someone at least half of whom aspires to to be a sidekick of Donald Trump ”.
But, he added, there are fears that people are less focused on opposing Trump than they were when he was on the ballot. “The further we move away from the Trump presidency,” he said, “this will naturally fade away”.
And it’s something that McAuliffe has long been concerned about – openly worrying in an interview with CNN in June, shortly before winning the Democratic Commonwealth of Nations primary, that Trump’s power might wane.
“We’ve had Donald Trump here for four years. He led a Democratic term. Donald Trump is no longer president, ”McAuliffe told CNN. “It’s going to be very tight. … It’s going to be a battle. ”
Outside political groups working in Virginia, like Swing Left, a group that formed following Trump’s election in 2020, told CNN they saw no decline in engagement before the election outside the year.
Ryan Quinn, the group’s director of campaigns, said their affiliate organization Vote Forward, a group that sends letters directly to voters urging them to come out and vote, saw four times as many letters written this year as in 2019. , when the group was concentrating on legislative races in the Commonwealth. And this Swing Left also made four times as many voter calls in Virginia this year.
“We haven’t seen a level of enthusiasm waning,” Quinn said, adding that people know that “what we’re talking about in Virginia is not just the leadership of the state, but also the leadership of the state. Global electoral narrative enter a mid-term cycle. ”
“While it is special that we were able to topple the state in 2019,” Quinn concluded, “it clearly has a much larger domestic import in the 2022 cycle.”