Terry McAuliffe; Glenn Youngkin
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Governor Terry McAuliffe, left, and Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, participate in a debate at Northern Virginia Community College, in Alexandria, Virginia, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

In September 2020, The Washington Post declared Virginia’s era as a swing state over. The assertion was not unwarranted. Since 2008, when Virginia voted Democratic in a presidential election for the first time since 1964, the state has rapidly become bluer and bluer. While Virginia was once a Republican stronghold, GOP control of the state has slipped away over the last decade. No Republican candidate has won a statewide election since 2009—and in 2019, Democrats took control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in 20 years.

How did that happen? Like in many other parts of the country, the answer lies in the suburbs. Since the mid-2000s, the neighborhoods of northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., have been expanding, and now they hit the sweet spot for new Democratic voters⁠—college educated, middle to upper class, and diverse. Other suburban areas, like the greater Richmond and Hampton Roads regions, saw similar changes, although to a lesser extent.

“Virginia does have a whiter, small-town rural area, particularly outside of the three big urban areas,” Kyle Kondik, the managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told me. “But Republican gains in those places have been dwarfed by Democratic gains in the other parts of the Commonwealth that just have more people and are growing faster.” Anti-Trump enthusiasm—which was high among suburban voters nationwide—only accelerated these trends, leading to a blue wave in Virginia elections, culminating in Joe Biden’s 10-point win last year.

It was in this political climate that Terry McAuliffe, a moderate, establishment Democrat and former Democratic National Committee chair, entered this year’s gubernatorial election. Few Democrats have the track record in the Commonwealth that he does. McAuliffe was the first Virginian in 40 years to win the governorship while the same party occupied the White House; because of the state’s electoral laws, he was barred from running for reelection, but can serve more than one non-consecutive term. In June, he won the Democratic primary handily, and based on voting patterns of the past decade, he seemed set to handily win the general election as well.

And yet, almost as soon as the primaries were over, polls showed a much tighter race than anticipated. RealClearPolitics’ polling average currently has McAuliffe leading over the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, by a little less than five points—a notable lead, but a far cry from the nine points that Governor Ralph Northam won the state with in 2017.

Why? Most likely, the absence of Donald Trump. Democrats had hoped that the anti-Trump swing voters who put Northam into office and flipped the state legislature in 2019 would become cemented in the party’s bloc. But with Trump out of office (and off social media), that may not be the case. Polling in northern Virginia, in particular, shows that many of those anti-Trump suburban swing voters are willing to flip back for the right candidate. The GOP seems to have found that candidate in Youngkin, a former CEO of the Carlyle Group who has positioned himself as a political outsider.

In response, Democrats have made every effort to associate Youngkin with the former president. McAuliffe has blanketed the airwaves with ads calling Youngkin “a loyalist to Donald Trump,” and at a campaign rally in July, President Biden made Youngkin and Trump seem one and the same. “I ran against Donald Trump, and so is Terry,” he said. “And I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia, and so will Terry.”

“McAuliffe wants to remind those suburban-exurban voters that Trump equals Youngkin. Youngkin equals Trump,” Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, told me.

Indeed, many of Youngkin’s policy proposals certainly overlap with Trump’s agenda, but unlike most recent GOP nominees in Virginia, Youngkin has minimized his ties to the real estate mogul turned politician. Trump has endorsed Youngkin, but he has yet to campaign for him, and Youngkin’s stump speeches focus mainly on his conservative economic policies, rather than stirring up cultural battles in the Trumpian fashion. In the words of the Monthly’s Matthew Cooper, Youngkin is “Trump with a human face, a genial mien.”

Youngkin’s efforts seem to be working, at least somewhat. A recent Monmouth University poll showed Youngkin gaining voters in suburban northern Virginia, and multiple polls have found a tighter margin among likely voters compared to registered voters, suggesting an enthusiasm problem for Democrats.

These trends are not just troubling for Democrats in Virginia. They suggest a trend line that might serve as a warning to Democrats in states and districts nationwide, especially those even more competitive than Virginia. It wouldn’t be too surprising if a progressive candidate lost some suburban swing voters in this election, but McAuliffe isn’t exactly that. He’s supposed to be the safe-bet moderate. If he can’t win over those voters in a blue state, what does that mean for moderate Democrats in purple states where voters are no longer scared of Trump and his minions?

Worse yet, Youngkin’s success at clawing back some suburban voters provides a clear blueprint for the GOP in areas where Trump remains unpopular. Youngkin has so far managed to distance himself from Trump just enough to gain swing votes without losing more extreme GOP voters in rural areas. It’s a tightrope to walk, but he’s been walking it shrewdly. That might not be enough to win in Virginia, but if he makes gains on Election Day, it offers Republicans a viable strategy for suburban districts in next year’s midterms.

Of course, Democrats will need to counter that strategy effectively if they want to hold on to the House, which they currently control by only an eight-vote majority, in 2022.

In the 2018 and 2020 elections, for instance, Democrats benefited from anti-Trump voters in suburban congressional districts outside Philadelphia, Detroit, the Twin Cities, Chicago, and Atlanta, all of which flipped blue under President Trump. Collectively, those areas alone make up nine congressional seats where Republicans could make gains.

The Senate, too, will be up for grabs next year—and Georgia is a major area of concern for Democrats, who flipped the state blue in 2020 and then proceeded to win two runoff Senate elections, giving them control. All of those elections were extremely competitive, though, and were won largely because of high anti-Trump turnout in the Atlanta suburbs and the masterful organizing of Stacey Abrams and others. If suburban swing voters move even just a few points back toward the Republican Party now with Trump gone, or if those areas have low enough turnout, Democrats stand to lose one of those Senate seats when Raphael Warnock faces reelection next year.

Democrats stand a chance to flip at least one Senate seat blue: Republican Senator Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, is set to retire next year. Political experts say that Democrats will need to mobilize the same suburban swing voters outside Philadelphia that helped Biden win the state, which will not be an easy task, considering that many of those voters do not even identify as Democrats and could turn back to the GOP with a moderate-enough-appearing candidate like Youngkin.

Virginia’s governor race so far has made one thing abundantly clear: Even if Youngkin doesn’t win this election, Republicans in competitive states and districts are finding ways to dissociate themselves from Trump without alienating his core supporters. McAuliffe, for all his strengths, is struggling to counter the tightrope Youngkin is walking. If Democrats want to hold on to power next year, they will have to start figuring out how they can fight against other candidates who employ the same strategy.

Jakob Cansler

Follow Jakob on Twitter @jhcansler. Jakob Cansler is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly.