Virginia's governor's race and what it reveals about America's political future

Download Audio
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (L) and gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (L) and gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The race for governor of Virginia may be the most important political contest of the year.

“Whenever something happens in Washington, whether it’s a Republican or Democratic administration, voters here tend to react to that and see that as a reflection of how their party is doing," Mel Leonor, politics reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, says.

Today, On Point: We look at Virginia’s governor’s race and what it says about the political parties – and where the country’s heading.


Mel Leonor, Virginia politics reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (@MelLeonor_)

Bob Holsworth, managing partner of public policy consulting firm DecideSmart. Founding director of the Center for Public Policy and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Interview Highlights

On what the Virginia governor's race tell us about the current political mood

Bob Holsworth: "A lot of people look at this race as the first election of 2022 in many ways. And what seems to be critically important for a lot of folks outside of Virginia is to think about how a state where Joe Biden won by 10 points could move, potentially, in a Republican direction, if all of a sudden Glenn Youngkin is able to win. And secondarily, or related to that, is that Youngkin has not campaigned by absolutely distancing himself from Donald Trump. He's basically walked what a lot of people are calling a Trump tightrope.

"He's made a number of direct appeals to Trump-base voters with issues such as election integrity. He said he's pro-life on abortion, and at the same time, he's trying to win suburban defections from the Democrats among independents. And maybe even among some people who consider themselves moderate Democrats, by emphasizing some culture war issues.

"Particularly a new one about education. Suggesting that the Democrats are trying to control education with big government, and aren't enabling parents to have as much influence as they should have on the educational system. But if Youngkin is able to pull off a win in the state Joe Biden carried by 10 points, and at the same time, sort of making an appeal that transcends the rural Trump base with highly-educated suburbanites, that would be seen as a new model for the Republican Party going forward."

On Terry McAuliffe's history in Virginia

Bob Holsworth: "Terry McAuliffe came to Virginia as the governor in 2013, where he won election. And at that time, he was seen very cautiously, I think, and somewhat nervously by a lot of Virginians. Because he was perceived by-and-large to have been a political operative, somebody who was head of the Democratic National Committee, someone who is a fundraiser for the Clintons. And the question was, could he actually run the state? He won an election in 2013 against a relatively weak Republican candidate and a divided Republican Party, and he won very narrowly in a three-way race.

"And then as governor, he did quite a good job. He left office relatively popular, and basically he was perceived as someone who promoted Virginia economic development very successfully. And at the same time, for Democrats and progressives, he was a brick wall on the social issues. He changed some of the state regulations that the Republicans had introduced on abortion, was very clear on giving more felons the right to vote after they had served their time in Virginia, had promoted education reforms and was generally perceived by the public, and by the Democrats ... [as] an effective governor.

"But Virginia has this very odd situation, we're the only state in the country where a governor can not run for reelection in consecutive terms, they have to sit out. And McAuliffe sat out for four years, then decided to come back and had to fight in the Democratic primary against numerous other opponents, including two relatively prominent African American women candidates.

"McAuliffe won the primary pretty easily. But at the same time, seems to have had some difficulty, at least up until very recently, in generating a lot of enthusiasm for the candidacy the second time around. And maybe because he's perceived a little bit as old news, and maybe because the Democrats have just felt pretty complacent that Virginia was their state right now. And so what we've seen in the last couple of weeks is McAuliffe has brought in folks like Stacey Abrams, Barack Obama, President Biden, Vice President Harris to really try to raise the level of noise and convince the Democrats what's at stake."


On how Biden's presidency is affecting Terry McAuliffe's campaign

Bob Holsworth: "It's the single biggest problem that the McAuliffe campaign has had. That McAuliffe was ahead by seven or eight points, when Joe Biden's popularity was in positive territory. Since Biden has gone underwater, and in particular with independents, there's almost been a direct correlation in the polls with independent support for McAuliffe. So McAuliffe is going to have to win, I think, with Biden's support, at least nationally being underwater. I don't think it's necessarily going to be that largely underwater in Virginia, though, a couple of polls have suggested it is. But this has been a challenge for McAuliffe, and it's a challenge in motivating voters."

On how voters are thinking about the governor's race

Bob Holsworth: "If we take a look at this recent history, what we saw is that the Democrats were winning these elections from 2005 through about 2016. They won most of those elections, but a number of them were tight. Terry McAuliffe, when he ran in 2013, won the election by less than three points. Mark Warner the following year was reelected to the Senate by less than one point. Then Donald Trump came in, and all of a sudden Virginians who were very much opposed to Donald Trump, the Democrats, they came out in droves. And all of the sudden races that were three and four point races turned into races that were eight points, 10 points, double digits.

"Now, Trump's out of office, he's not in Washington, he's not on Twitter every 15 minutes. And the Democrats are the incumbent party, both in Washington and in Virginia. So for those people who are frustrated with what is happening, or what is not happening nationally, the Democrats have now become the target rather than Donald Trump, to some degree. And the other thing that we've seen in these polls that has been pretty consistent, that over the last few months, as President Biden's numbers cratered with independents, that took a toll on Terry McAuliffe's numbers with independents, as well.

"So as we look at this race, Democrats are supporting McAuliffe in large numbers. The question for the Democrats, are they as enthusiastic about the election as the Republicans? But the real challenge has become the national problem. Because as the Democrats do nothing in a state in which we're right next door to Washington, in which much of our economy is related to the federal government, the fact that the Democrats have been in disarray for months now in trying to get some of these bills passed, has really taken a toll, I think, on McAuliffe's polling numbers. And the question is whether the Democrats' last minute push here, in which they've really brought in a lot of heavy hitters to remind their voters what's at stake in this election, will that generate enough enthusiasm?"

This program aired on October 28, 2021.


Headshot of Jonathan Chang

Jonathan Chang Producer/Director, On Point
Jonathan is a producer/director at On Point.


Headshot of Anthony Brooks

Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



More from On Point

Listen Live