Virginia’s gubernatorial race should have provided Democrats a walkover. Instead, Joe Biden’s confidence-crisis cascade — and the state’s electoral history — threatens to hand the moderately blue state to the GOP. Terry McAuliffe and his party seem worried enough over that prospect to skip over the party’s current leader creating the “headwinds,” and pull another out instead:
Former President Obama will campaign with Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe later this month ahead of the state’s off-year election.
Obama will join McAuliffe on Oct. 23 in Richmond.
The news comes after McAuliffe’s campaign announced that first lady Jill Biden and former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will campaign with McAuliffe this weekend.
This has a whiff of November 2016 to it, does it not? On the final weekend of that year’s presidential cycle, Obama suddenly showed up in Michigan, long considered safe for Hillary Clinton, rather than in one of the competitive states. That move turned out to be prompted by a last-minute realization that Clinton had lost the Democrats’ grip on the state, prompting the eleventh-hour rescue attempt by Obama in what had been — would later return to — solid blue-state territory.
What makes this even more notable is that McAuliffe isn’t asking the current Democratic president to push him across the finish line. And everyone, including McAuliffe, understands why Jill and not Joe will show up:
“We got to get Democrats out to vote. We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington as you know. The president is unpopular today unfortunately here in Virginia. So we have got to plow through,” McAuliffe said in a clip that surfaced last week.
What does McAuliffe’s team see in its polling to make it necessary to skip over Biden and get Obama engaged? The RCP tracking average shows a close race, but McAuliffe still leading in all polls:
The RCP average is, like most of its constituent polls, within the range of the margin of error. Still, McAuliffe scores above 45%, usually the Mendoza Line for incumbents, even quasi-incumbents like McAuliffe. whose first gubernatorial term ended years ago. Youngkin hasn’t scored above 48% in any poll, while McAuliffe hasn’t scored below 48% in over a month.
So why the worry now? For one thing, pollsters have proven poor at detecting Republican turnout in elections the last few cycles. That’s in part due to Donald Trump’s unique turnout capability, but the same volatility in polling has arisen in other cycles — notably 2014 and to some extent even a little in 2018. Virginia’s off-year election produces interesting turnout model variations, perhaps especially so in a political environment with such economic and public-health pressures.
McAuliffe furthermore put his entire campaign in jeopardy in attacking parents for demanding accountability from school boards over critical-race theory. Telling moms and dads that they should butt out of the education of their own children is akin to kissing the suburban vote goodbye, and probably no small amount of the urban vote as well. It’s the kind of revealing, Kinsleyan gaffe that should and often does kill political careers, even in blue states like Virginia. Youngkin is campaigning heavily over those comments for good reason.
There may be another factor in play, one that Obama won’t help. Democrats turned Virginia blue by expanding the federal government into northern Virginia (NOVA) over several decades, essentially seeding it with bureaucracy-friendly voters. Outside of NOVA, the rest of Virginia (ROVA) remains reliably red, perhaps more so now than usual given the political environment these days. While NOVA is usually enough for Democrats to win statewide, that could change in this cycle thanks to the vaccine mandates pushed by Joe Biden. Those will have an enormously disproportionate impact in NOVA, thanks to the much higher percentage of federal workers and contractors there, many of whom would otherwise be reliable Democratic voters. Between the forced vaccinations and McAuliffe’s cover for indoctrination of children, that advantage might dissipate entirely in this election.
Finally, Obama remains a popular figure in the Democratic party, but there’s not much evidence he himself moves the needle in elections. He didn’t succeed in rescuing Clinton from herself in 2016, and that was when Obama was still a relatively popular president. It’s unclear what Obama can do for McAuliffe now. Obama’s electoral might came from his unbelievably effective ground operation, an innovative model than neither party has equalled or even approached since 2012. Five years after leaving office, Obama is no longer particularly relevant, especially in Virginia. Calling him to the dais is a desperation move by a candidate running out of options.