With close races, Virginia’s elections hinge on voter turnout

Oct. 27, 2021 - Wendy Martin

The Virginia gubernatorial race has tightened. Though Democrat and former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe enjoyed a lead in July and August polls, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s numbers have surged. Today, polls are even or indicate only a one- to two-point margin for either candidate, but success for either candidate is likely to come down to voter turnout. The question is: Whose voters feel strongly enough to show up at the polls on Election Day?

These are just a few of the opinions and perspectives shared by Bob Holsworth, one of Virginia’s leading political analysts and founding director of both the Center for Public Policy and the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, during his October 26 “Conversation on the 2021 Virginia Elections”  hosted by the VCU Risk Management and Insurance (RMI) Program. The virtual event was sponsored by FCCI Insurance Group, Markel, Marsh McLennan Agency and Virginia Asset Management.

Here are some highlights from Holsworth’s presentation:

  • Virginia trends blue, but margins vary – Over the last 15 years, in statewide elections for president, Senate and governor, Virginia has trended blue with just one exception: Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s win in 2009. President Barack Obama won the Commonwealth twice. But, prior to President Donald Trump’s election, Democrats typically won by small margins. In 2014, Senator Mark Warner eked out re-election in 2014 by less than 1% and, in his first gubernatorial election, McAuliffe defeated Republican challenger Ken Cuccinelli in 2013 by only 2.5%.

  • Virginia’s rural and urban areas increasingly polarized – Years ago, Virginia’s rural areas were somewhat divided between Republicans and conservative Democrats. Today they are almost all red, especially in counties that are primarily White. Virginia’s urban areas, meanwhile, have become even more Democratic.

    With Trump on the ballot, however, Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by 5% and President Joe Biden carried the state with a 10% margin.
  • Suburban shift critical to Democrats – Virginia’s trend from red to purple to blue has occurred, in part, because of the shift in suburban voters over the last 20 to 30 years. As the demographics of Virginia’s suburbs became increasingly diverse and more highly educated, suburban counties that had been reliably Republican flipped or reduced their margins. Henrico County, for example, used to be a Republican stronghold but recently delivered a 20,000-vote margin for Democrats. Chesterfield, once the county with Republican’s highest vote margins (about 25,000 to 30,000 in every election), voted for Democrats Northam, Kaine and Biden in recent years. Virginia Beach, also, has become much more competitive for Democrats.

  • Virginia’s other statewide and local races in play – The party that ultimately wins Virginia’s governorship historically is likely to secure the Commonwealth’s lieutenant governor and attorney general positions as well. But, with all 100 representatives in Virginia’s House of Delegates up for election in 2021, a governor from either party could face a divided General Assembly. Money and funding of House of Delegates races has been unprecedented as Republicans seek to regain a majority by flipping at least six of eight to 10 competitive seats in Northern Virginia, the Richmond metropolitan area and Hampton Roads. Delegates earn just $18,000 yet more than a million has been raised by campaigns to win select seats. 
  • Redistricting commission a total debacle – In the last election, two-thirds of Virginians voted to create a redistricting commission. The partisan group, composed of equal numbers of Democrat and Republican citizens and legislators, was a prescription for gridlock and failure. Yet the result is likely to be a net loss for Democrats who, unlike Republicans in power in other states, chose not to exert greater control of the redistricting process.

  • A statewide election of national consequence – The Virginia race will undoubtedly have a lot of resonance nationally, as evidenced by the number of national Democrats campaigning in the Commonwealth. If a Republican governor can win Virginia without abandoning the Trump base, it will send a strong message and be seen as a debacle for the Democratic party. Many look at Virginia’s race as the first campaign of 2022. Democrats hope to hold on to slim majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, but the mid-terms are historically hard for the president’s party and President Biden’s approval ratings have been in decline.

Youngkin must retain Trump enthusiasts but earn suburban defections
Glenn Youngkin was arguably the best candidate Republicans could nominate for governor. He could fund a race, appealed skillfully to Evangelical voters and was fairly good on television. Youngkin’s challenge has been to retain the enthusiasm of Trump-based voters while at the same time earning suburban defections from people who most recently voted for Democrats.

In polling, Youngkin’s highest base of support comes from White voters without college degrees where he is running up large margins in the 60s and 70s.

Despite the lack of evidence of widespread voter fraud and the fact that every local, three-person Virginia electoral board has at least one Republican board member, a majority of Virginia Republicans still believe “The Big Lie” that Virginia’s 2020 election results are fraudulent. Youngkin speaks publicly about “election integrity” because he understands he can’t distance himself from Trump without losing the enthusiasm and turnout from the groups that support him in the largest numbers.

Youngkin’s closing message has largely focused on education and the theme that parents matter, appealing to the Trump base by capitalizing on a comment McAuliffe made in the final debate about school curriculum.

Holsworth anticipates that Youngkin will win Chesterfield County. Even if he loses Northern Virginia and Richmond, Youngkin can be the victor if he wins Virginia Beach, Chesterfield and can cut into Democrat margins in Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun. If victorious in the statewide election, will likely bring Jason Miyares with him as attorney general. Holsworth is less certain about Winsome Sears’ success as lieutenant governor, even if Virginia selects a Republican governor, due to her weak fundraising efforts.

McAuliffe bets it all on equating Youngkin with Trump
In his first term as governor, Terry McAuliffe left office relatively popular with a reputation as an excellent salesperson for Virginia and a “rock” for progressive values such as gun violence prevention and women’s reproductive rights. Despite having 20 detailed proposals for a second gubernatorial term, McAuliffe’s campaign has focused largely on linking and equating Youngkin with Trump. His campaign seeks to convince voters that Youngkin is simply a kinder, gentler Trump who, if elected, will advance Trump’s social, educational, and economic agenda in the Commonwealth.

Early voting is relatively strong in Northern Virginia and this is viewed as good news for Democrats. Yet early voting has not been strong in Richmond. Alarmed that the Democrats could be suffering from election fatigue or that minority voters could be demoralized by lack of action and success by Democrats in the nation’s capital, national Democrats like President Obama, Stacey Abrams, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden, have been deployed throughout the Commonwealth to “get out the vote.” The McAuliffe campaign appears confident that their candidate can win if Virginia has good voter turnout. 

View the Holsworth presentation in its entirety here.

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