Virginia Governor: Rating Change

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 29, 2021 · 5:30 PM EDT

Even though this fall's race for governor in Virginia is just one race in one state, it will determine the initial narrative of the midterm elections next year.

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 the 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 the race more seriously. The end result was close to normal Democratic performance and thus a resounding defeat of the recall in a heavily Democratic state that Joe Biden won by 29 points in 2020. 

Democrats don’t have the same partisanship margin in Virginia, where Biden won by a more narrow 10 points over President Donald Trump. Simply rallying Democratic voters for a Democratic cause isn’t enough. 

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

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

A Youngkin victory would be a boon for Republicans. It would demonstrate the GOP’s ability to win places that Biden carried easily in 2020, and Youngkin likely would have overperformed the public polling to do it. 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 emphasising crime, critical race theory, and coronavirus-related mandates as a way to get back voters who rejected Trump and the GOP in recent cycles. Those copycat campaigns will likely happen even if those weren’t issues 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 won’t be entirely good news for Democrats, especially if it is a narrow victory. That’s because Republicans  don’t have to win districts or states anywhere near the Democratic lean of Virginia in order to regain control of the House and Senate.