RICHMOND, VIRGINIA — A literal rainbow appeared overhead as Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor in Virginia, left a teen resource center in Richmond that he had just finished touring.
“I know I can get this done. As I’ve said, I’ve got more energy today than the day I was born. I feel great,” McAuliffe told BuzzFeed News last Tuesday, with his trademark level of enthusiasm. “I actually enjoy campaigning because I love to meet people. I love it.”
But the race is not all sunshine and rainbows for McAuliffe. It’s tight, with the latest polls showing McAuliffe, who has previously served as the state’s governor, up only a couple of points from his opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, a newcomer to politics. While Virginia has been trending toward Democrats in recent years — the last Republican to win statewide office won in 2009, and Biden won the state by 10 points in 2020 — many Democrats admit the race is much closer than they’re comfortable with.
Virginia’s election, which will take place Nov. 2, is one of two governors races held in the off year that follows a presidential election. It is often seen as a referendum on how the current presidency is going and as a potential bellwether for what may come in the next year’s midterms. Historically, whichever party wins the White House typically loses the governor’s mansion in Virginia; McAuliffe, who won in 2013 while Barack Obama was president, is the only exception to this trend in the last several decades.
This year, there’s a twist. In this election, there are two presidents up for review: the current and the former. A quick, two-day swing through Virginia last week that included conversations with more than two dozen people showed that the last five years are sharp in the minds of voters, many of whom said they plan to support McAuliffe not so much because they adore him, but because they associate the Republican Party with Trumpism. BuzzFeed News spoke to voters in Richmond, whose suburbs are ripe for competition and where McAuliffe will appear with Obama later this month; Charlottesville, a Democratic bubble and the scene of the 2017 white nationalist rally; and Culpeper, a town in a county that voted for Trump over Biden by nearly 20 points.
Trump hovers over the race “10,000%,” said Tori Marsh, 24, a furniture salesperson in Charlottesville. “I feel like he polarized the whole entire nation.” While she wishes there were a candidate “that we hadn’t heard forever and wasn’t basically an old white man,” she plans to vote for McAuliffe more as a vote against Youngkin.
Most people who planned to vote for McAuliffe and had voted for Biden were tepid on both. “Eh,” said Nancy Tisdale, 67, a nurse in Charlottesville, when asked how she thinks Biden’s doing as president, adding that she thought he’d fumbled the Afghanistan withdrawal. Asked if she liked McAuliffe as a candidate, she said, “Better than the other choice.”
McAuliffe and his team seem well aware that tying Youngkin to Trump is one of their strongest arguments. McAuliffe has labeled Youngkin as a “Trump wannabe” and emphasized the former president’s endorsements of the candidate. After Trump called into a rally last Wednesday featuring former Trump aide Steve Bannon, McAuliffe’s team put together an ad featuring the audio to tie Youngkin to him further. (Youngkin was not present at the rally.) McAuliffe’s prominent centering of Trump in his messaging evokes similar tactics that California Gov. Gavin Newsom successfully used to keep his seat in his recent recall election.
“Frankly, and unfortunately, because he still has such a hold on so many elements of the Republican Party and he’s engaging in this race, so even for those who would rather have him off their minds, he’s made himself present here,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who represents a competitive Richmond-area district, in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News.
Spanberger pointed to Trump’s endorsements, the rally last week, and Republicans using a flag at that event that had been “defiled” because it was used in the violent pro-Trump insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. (The Washington Post reported Youngkin initially “ducked” a question on the use of the flag; he ultimately issued a statement calling it “weird and wrong to pledge allegiance to a flag connected to January 6.”)
“I think for a lot of people, they are concerned that Trump’s legacy in the Republican Party looms large, and do we want that type of leadership and governance here or not?” Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who ran in the gubernatorial primary against McAuliffe, told BuzzFeed News after the tour of the Boys & Girls Club teen resource center. Most of what she hears from voters, she said, is “Who’s going to help meet my needs?”
Those needs and priorities differ from voter to voter, but a lot of what’s happening nationally was really hitting home. Asked what issues were most important to them as the election approached, several voters planning to cast ballots for the Democrat pointed to the attacks on reproductive rights in Texas (which McAuliffe has been talking about on the trail) and the COVID-19 response (Youngkin has opposed vaccine mandates).
“Trump has a lot of support in Virginia, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing [for Youngkin] to align himself with him,” said Roger Clarke, a retired firefighter and Republican who lives outside of Richmond. If McAuliffe, he said, “aligns himself with Biden, with Biden’s popularity at this time, it’s going to cause him to suffer greatly.”
Biden’s approval numbers have sagged. McAuliffe acknowledged earlier this month that his campaign faces “headwinds from Washington,” though he said last week Biden will return to the trail with him.
Candidates for governor in Virginia have historically been tied to the new president no matter what. The pattern of White House wins turning into gubernatorial losses in the state is so consistent that it is known as the Virginia “curse” within the political class. But beyond serving as a political telltale, the state’s makeup actually says a lot about what’s on voters’ minds. “One of the reasons Virginia can tell us so much is that the state has a little bit of all kinds of voters,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic political strategist who has worked on past races in Virginia, his home state. “Virginia offers a petri dish of people to show us where they are trending politically.”
It’s not new for national politics to drive state politics within Virginia. That’s been particularly sharp in Charlottesville since the 2017 Unite the Right rally. The white supremacist gathering made national news, especially when Trump defended the white supremacists and blamed “both sides.” Biden has repeatedly credited the rally and Trump’s response to it as driving him to run for president. Over the summer, several Confederate statues were finally removed in the city. Later this month, organizers of the white supremacist rally will stand trial. For a lot of residents, it has been a painful and galvanizing few years. On Tuesday, McAuliffe released an ad prominently featuring the 2017 rally, Trump, and white supremacy, and tying Youngkin to it.
“I still have not forgiven [Trump] for his reaction to the August 12 riots here in Charlottesville,” Jess Johnson said as he and his wife walked their dogs last Wednesday morning in the downtown mall area where the riots occurred. “Claiming that there was good people on both sides is literally the worst thing anybody could say.”
A couple of blocks away, David Puckett, 67, an architect in Charlottesville, was making his way to his office, where he had watched white supremacists march through his community. Puckett, who said he voted for Biden last year and cast his ballot early for McAuliffe in the governor’s race, said he likes the “lack of daily trauma” from the current commander in chief. “He wasn’t my first choice, but I think if he’s elected, which I think he will be, it’s sort of like Biden, it will be fairly predictable,” Puckett said of McAuliffe. “Given the alternative, the other choice, it’s almost no choice.”
Youngkin has tried to walk the line between keeping Trump’s base riled up and not turning off the voters who don’t like Trump but might otherwise vote for him. On the trail, he has leaned into a lot of the culture war issues that have resonated with conservatives, from election integrity (a wink and nod to Trump casting doubt on the results of the 2020 election, which Biden legitimately won) to critical race theory.
“We are no longer going to support this left, liberal, progressive agenda that’s trying to turn Virginia into California East,” Youngkin said at his Parents Matter event in Culpeper on Wednesday. The event was held indoors at a small seafood restaurant tightly packed with supporters, few, if any, wearing masks. “Make America Great Again” hats were scattered throughout the crowd, and one man wore a shirt that said “everything woke turns to shit.” Several down-ballot Republican candidates Youngkin is hoping will be swept into office with him also attended.
“I do hope [Youngkin] replicates a lot of what Trump did. I hope we can get back to where we were headed and what we had with Trump,” said Alicia Duncan, 44, a Youngkin supporter who attended the event. Duncan expressed frustration with the ongoing pandemic. She got vaccinated against COVID-19, though she added that she regretted the decision because she believes it could affect her health in the long run. (The vaccine has been found to be safe.) She contracted COVID-19 anyway, she said, and it was rough.
“I think a lot of people were kind of on the fence or kind of sleepy in the last maybe several years with elections,” she said. “But now that their freedoms are being limited or taken away, I think people are coming out more and advocating more.”