It was a race that was all but in the bag for former Governor Terry McAuliffe looking to recapture his past power and glory. He would breeze to victory once more in a state given over to his party even more than when he previously held the office – in fact, more than at any time in over half a century. As a forever politician with a strikingly similar 20th-century liberal worldview and careerist credentials as the president who just won his state, he would, like his party’s boss sitting in the White House, know exactly how to exploit the Trump factor. After all, what a huge advantage to be running in the commonwealth of Virginia where the 45th president was successfully slandered following the Charlottesville event, depicted as a raging white supremacist.
And it all started so well. He came roaring out of the gate, wiping out a weak field in the primary, riding the wave of name recognition, GOP weakness, and the well-documented events of January 6, facing a virtually unknown political novice. He sprang to a commanding lead in the polls, and even with his president in free fall, held a comfortable advantage as recently as Labor Day.
And yet, as voters go to the polls today, McAuliffe stands at the precipice of defeat. Ugly defeat. Shocking defeat.
In fact, even if the former governor manages to defy the polls and squeaks out a narrow victory to win back his old position in today’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, the stench of impending doom will still linger around the national Democratic Party. After all, the headlines would read something like “McAuliffe Barely Sidesteps Defeat” or “McAuliffe Narrowly Avoids Shocking Upset in Biden 2020 Stronghold.”
Indeed, McAuliffe was supposed to cruise to victory. But he is a surrogate for the party and the man they cleared their field to anoint for president, who are on a losing streak of historic proportions. It started with the disastrous Afghanistan surrender and is still going strong with their persistent failure to close the deal on either bipartisan infrastructure or far-reaching, socialist-style reforms.
The burning question is whether it is Biden, or McAuliffe himself, who is most responsible for the disastrous turn in the race. But there is no question the race in Virginia could severely damage the Democrats’ brand. It all comes down to math. Biden won in the Old Dominion by ten points. McAuliffe would appear fortunate to win at all, if you believe the growing consensus of polls carrying a universal theme: McAuliffe’s support is collapsing as his opponent, businessman and political novice Glenn Youngkin, rises to the point of leading in the most recent polls, one of them by as many as eight points, just weeks after trailing badly.
What went so wrong, so suddenly for the former Clinton consigliere? It can be summed up in one word: education. If McAuliffe does in fact lose, the turning point will be crystal clear. It was during a debate with Youngkin, when he proclaimed – with words likely to live in political infamy – about the single biggest hot-button issue of the day: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Thus began his freefall in the polls, unabated as the last wave of voters cast their ballots.
And it’s not like McAuliffe tried to backpedal or walk back his remarks. Instead, he kept doubling down and trying to explain them away on the campaign trail, even as his lead kept slipping and finally cratered. Most shocking was how McAuliffe, the quintessential political veteran, could be so tone-deaf and so badly misread the room. It leads to speculation that, like Joe Biden, he has seen better days.
On the other side, Youngkin did far more than just call for a ban on CRT. He repeatedly pointed to the subpar state of education in Virginia – fewer than half of the state’s black children in the third grade and in the sixth grade passed reading assessments – and tied it to eight years of Democrat governors McAuliffe and Ralph Northam. He proposed increased spending for dilapidated schools, teacher pay raises, more money for special education, and 20 new charter schools.
McAuliffe’s campaign was finally reduced to the lowest common denominator in its final days in a desperate attempt to reverse his collapse. He released a statement labeling his opponent as, what else, an open racist because he called for a ban on critical race theory in Virginia schools: “Youngkin’s closing message of book banning and silencing esteemed Black authors is a racist dog whistle designed to gin up support from the most extreme elements of his party — mainly his top endorser and surrogate, Donald Trump.” Joe Biden, first told not to show up for fear he would damage McAuliffe’s campaign, was in the end called upon in desperation, visiting Virginia last week and naming Trump 24 times in his angry, rambling diatribe supporting McAuliffe.
The enthusiasm gap between the two parties could hardly be wider. Democrats are dispirited by the repeated failures of their president and congressional leaders and a shockingly incompetent campaign by McAuliffe and are thus unlikely to vote in big numbers. Even visits to the state by all the party’s shiniest luminaries, from Barack Obama to Kamala Harris, have failed to move the needle upward.
Republicans, on the other hand, are smelling blood in the water, chomping at the bit to cash in on their first chance for revenge following 2020. A single race should not ordinarily be seen as a bellwether for the entire nation or for elections still more than a year away. But it is clear that this Virginia gubernatorial race is rightly seen by both sides – cringing Democrats and starry-eyed Republicans – as a genuine opening salvo in the next wave of political battles, which will conclude with the midterm elections of 2022.
~ Read more from Tim Donner.