Rating change: Virginia governor’s race could drive 2022 narrative

Biden a drag on McAuliffe as campaign moves from Likely to Lean Democratic

A drop in President Joe Biden’s popularity has made former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s bid for another term more competitive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A drop in President Joe Biden’s popularity has made former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s bid for another term more competitive. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 29, 2021 at 3:00pm

ANALYSIS — Even though this fall’s election for governor in Virginia is just one race in one state, it will determine the initial narrative of the 2022 midterm elections.

Former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has had a consistent advantage over Republican Glenn Youngkin in the commonwealth, but some Democratic strategists are concerned about President Joe Biden’s drag on the race and about a lack of urgency on the Democratic side.

After a single poll showed a majority of voters poised to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in California earlier this year, Democrats started to take that race more seriously. The end result was a close-to-normal Democratic performance and thus a resounding defeat of the recall in a heavily Democratic state that Biden won by 29 points in 2020. 

Democrats don’t have the same partisan edge in Virginia, which Biden won by a narrower 10 points over President Donald Trump. Simply rallying Democratic voters for a Democratic cause wouldn’t be enough. 

The public polling points to a very competitive race. McAuliffe is ahead of Youngkin by about 3 points in both the FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics polling averages, neither of which have changed much in the past six weeks. 

Acknowledging that narrow margin, Inside Elections is changing its rating of the Virginia gubernatorial race from Likely Democratic to Lean Democratic. The move reflects a better chance of winning for Republicans, but the race is still short of a Toss-up. There is more historic and current evidence to support a McAuliffe victory, but Youngkin can still win (especially considering 3-point polling errors are not uncommon).

A Youngkin victory would be a boon for Republicans. It would demonstrate the party’s ability to win places that Biden carried easily in 2020, and Youngkin would likely have over-performed the public polling to do so. Even though the circumstances in Virginia wouldn’t automatically transfer to congressional races next year, it’s clear that Biden’s standing is having an impact on McAuliffe, and that dynamic would be relevant for the midterms.

A Youngkin victory would become a blueprint for the suburbs for GOP candidates around the country — by emphasizing crime, critical race theory and coronavirus-related mandates as a way to win back voters who rejected Trump and the Republican Party in recent cycles. Such copycat campaigns will likely happen even if those issues weren’t emphasized by the Youngkin campaign.

A McAuliffe victory would be more in line with recent results in California and New Mexico’s 1st District, where, after a bit of noise, the races settled back to expected partisan performance. 

But a McAuliffe win wouldn’t be entirely good news for Democrats, especially if the margin is narrow. That’s because Republicans don’t have to win districts or states with anywhere near the Democratic lean of Virginia in order to regain control of the House and Senate. 

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.