The competitive Virginia governor race is serving as a testing ground for midterm congressional campaign messaging, as both parties put together strategies to sway voters next year.
Across the country from California’s recall election, Virginia’s airwaves have been filled ahead of the November election with ads from Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe on new state laws limiting abortion, a brewing debate on hiking federal taxes for the wealthy, how to address Covid-19, and supporting law enforcement.
To what extent those issues and the way they’re communicated move the needle in polling, fundraising, and, ultimately, votes will inform candidates, operatives, and consultants as they prepare for 2022, when both chambers of Congress are in play.
“Virginia is always the place where you test drive messages for the midterm,” said Jared Leopold, a Democratic communications consultant. “It’s the first barometer of what the midterm environment is.”
Democrats have won the past two governor elections in the state, as well as every presidential and Senate election since 2006. Still, recent polling indicates the race could be close.
Chris LaCivita, a Republican consultant, said the state’s movement away from being a red state is ideal for Republicans to try out messages they can take to swing districts they hope to flip.
“What you have going on in Virginia is a microcosm of what could manifest itself in midterm elections,” he said.
Jill Normington, a Democratic pollster, said the two parties will be watching more than what works as an effective narrative. They also want to see who shows up to vote, which could provide insight into which base is more fired up and likely to be engaged next year.
“The real thing that people are paying attention to is not as much what is being said as what the turnout looks like,” she said.
Texas, Mississippi … Virginia?
Both candidates have primarily focused on a few issues for most of the race. A recent flurry of Youngkin ads tie McAuliffe to the “defund the police” movement and to a rise in certain violent crimes while he was governor. McAuliffe repeatedly compares Youngkin to former President Donald Trump, who received 44% of the state’s vote in 2020.
They also released ads attacking each other on abortion rights after Texas implemented a law banning most abortions after six weeks. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, declined to block the Texas law although did not role on its constitutionality. The issue is likely to remain prominent in campaigns into next year as the Supreme Court considers a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
The laws shed light on the power state officials have over reproductive rights and elevates a potential abortion ban to “a clear and present threat,” Leopold said.
“Virginia is the first test case of electoral messaging around the new stakes,” he said.
Prior to the law’s passage, the issue briefly took center stage in the Virginia race when a liberal activist posted a candid video of Youngkin saying he needed to avoid criticizing abortion supporters and highlighting that he’d defund Planned Parenthood because “as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”
McAuliffe used part of the video in a campaign ad. Another McAuliffe ad featured a doctor saying Youngkin’s “far-right agenda” would “harm her patients.”
Youngkin is also focused more on his opponent than himself, branding McAuliffe as an extremist on the issue. He’s highlighted the former governor’s support of a controversial 2019 bill in the state legislature to remove some restrictions for late-term abortions. The bill was blocked by Republicans.
At a Sept. 1 lunch hosted by Virginia FREE, a group of business and political leaders, Youngkin twice dodged questions on Texas’ law, saying his “biggest concern when it comes to abortion in Virginia is my opponent’s extreme views.”
Various polls in the past year found most voters say abortion should either be legal with some restrictions or illegal with some exceptions — the outliers are those who opt for all or nothing, said Normington.
“What works for Republicans on the issue of abortion is exactly the kind of language that Youngkin is using,” she said. “There’s a reason why they use the word ‘extremist.’”
LaCivita said he doubts it will be a major factor in turnout. But the recent state-level debate about late-term abortions made it easy to highlight McAuliffe’s support of the measure.
“Republicans feel very comfortable fighting that battle on those grounds,” LaCivita said.
Taxes to Come?
Another issue that could be tested among voters during the race is the higher taxes Democrats are proposing at the federal level on companies and individuals making more than $400,000.
While the potential increase hasn’t emerged as a major issue yet, former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said he can see it emerging if the tax hikes become law.
“The wealthy are voting overwhelmingly Democratic,” he said. “That creates a conflict in the Democratic base. If Republicans are smart, they can pick it apart.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org