Terry McAuliffe, Glenn Youngkin
Then Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Governor Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, listens during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, Thursday, September 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Terry McAuliffe is often described as a force of nature, which sounds like a cliché unless you’ve met him. McAuliffe once wrestled an alligator to secure a campaign contribution for Jimmy Carter in 1980. (Then 22, McAuliffe already had a senior position on the president’s reelection finance team.) With a salesman’s firm handshake and direct eye contact, McAuliffe has had a remarkable trajectory as a party fund-raising machine, Democratic National Committee chair, and governor of Virginia. Those gigs have put him at the center of Democratic politics for more than a generation. (McAuliffe once boasted that his Rolodex has more than 18,000 cards.) Now McAuliffe is trying to regain Virginia’s governor’s seat. (The commonwealth doesn’t allow governors to run for consecutive terms, so McAuliffe was ineligible to run for reelection after he left office in January 2018.)

Can he win? The polls are very close. It will largely depend on two things: an off-year reaction to the party in power, and whether McAuliffe’s opponent, the former private equity executive Glenn Youngkin, can sell a Trumpian agenda without alienating too many voters in an increasingly blue state.

A little history: Virginia voted Republican in every presidential election from 1968 to 2004. (It was the only former Confederate state not to back Jimmy Carter in 1976.) Barack Obama broke the GOP’s 36-year streak in 2008. No Republican presidential candidate has won it since. Chalk up its turning blue to the growth of the Washington, D.C., suburbs, a surge in Hispanic residents, and moderate Democrats like McAuliffe and U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, who managed to lure swing voters, motivate minorities to get to the polls, and hang on to enough rural whites to get over the top. The last time Virginia elected a Republican governor, Bob McDonnell in 2009, he was convicted of corruption charges for taking luxury gifts from a wealthy businessman while in office (his own wife testified against him), until the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the charges.

McAuliffe had a successful term as governor from 2014 to 2018, so chances should be good for him to get his old job back. The economy boomed under McAuliffe, in part because of the recovery from the financial crisis during his post–financial crisis tenure, but also because of his legendary hustle. A former banking executive, McAuliffe has been in all kinds of businesses, from green energy to campaign tchotchkes. As governor, he took dozens of trips overseas to lure business to the commonwealth. By all measures, he succeeded, including getting Nestlé USA to move its headquarters to Virginia.

On September 17, McAuliffe brought his usual brio to his first debate with Youngkin. At 64, McAuliffe is a decade older than Youngkin. Still, he had more energy than the laconic Republican, whose lanky demeanor, at six foot seven, was somewhere between aw-shucks (he grew up in Richmond and has a lilt) and that of a bored banker at a private school’s silent auction. (Youngkin has an MBA from Harvard and is said to be worth upward of $300 million.)

McAuliffe did well at the forum, held at a law school in the rural, far southwest part of the state, near the Tennessee border—closer to Cincinnati than to D.C. He reiterated that Youngkin was essentially Trump. This echoed McAuliffe’s ubiquitous TV ads, which hammer home Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin and the one-time executive at the Carlyle Group’s own admission, on a radio show, that “Trump represents so much of why I’m running.”

Aside from turning Youngkin into Trump, McAuliffe did a lot to turn himself into Gavin Newsom (or Joe Biden) on the question of vaccine mandates. McAuliffe is all for them. As he said of Youngkin:

He doesn’t believe in forcing people to understand what COVID is going to do to the state and to this country. It’s still raging all across the country. Right here in this county, all the ICU beds are full. So I am for requiring, mandate vaccinations . . . I am for mandating vaccinations for people who teach our children in school, for children who go, and higher ed, hospitals, nursing homes.

Youngkin is against mask and vaccine mandates, but this is the part that should worry Democrats: He did a respectable job with a lousy hand. Youngkin said he has gotten the vaccine, and he has encouraged others to as well. When asked about mandatory vaccinations for health care workers, Youngkin, who has a soft touch, said he’d try to persuade an unvaccinated nurse to get her shot: “Yeah, I think that nurse should fully understand that getting the vaccination’s the best way to protect her health and those around her.” Of course, that’s insane policy—letting your kid’s ICU nurse dither about a COVID-19 shot. As a political maneuver, however, it’s not terrible. It’s a more formidable tack than, say, Larry Elder breathlessly screaming about freedom and socialism.

McAuliffe scored points on abortion, too: “I’ll say this, again, to every woman watching tonight: I will protect your rights. I believe a woman ought to make a decision about her own reproductive rights.” (There’s a tape of Youngkin talking about abortion, saying he can’t be forthright now about how he’ll crack down on a woman’s right to choose if he wins.) McAuliffe also had a good twist on crime, boasting about his sheriffs’ endorsements and noting that Youngkin’s tax-cutting plan would leave the state with a shortfall, forcing it to “defund the police.” (McAuliffe’s words.) Youngkin had some old-school Republican lines: “By the way, if Terry McAuliffe is your next governor, get your checkbook out, because he’s gonna have to raise taxes for you.” And some newer lines, too, like jabs at critical race theory.

The biggest problem for McAuliffe, though, is that this is an odd-year election—and those often help the party out of power. Virginia elected Democrats after George W. Bush’s two victories and Republicans after Bill Clinton’s. The record’s a little more mixed this time, but Democrats are worried that the tide is against them.

There’s also this: Youngkin may represent the Republicans’ best hope this year and be a model for next year—Trump with a human face, a genial mien. (In Trump style, Youngkin refused to declare Biden the winner of the presidential election for months, but he finally relented, and unlike Elder in California, Youngkin said at the debate that he expects a fair election and will abide by it.) I talked to a few prominent Democrats after the debate, and they were all very concerned and didn’t want to be quoted. McAuliffe had been great, they said. They love Terry. They’ve known him forever. (That Rolodex!) But they know that Virginians need to fear Youngkin—and they worry that he wasn’t scary enough.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.