Joe Biden and Democrats know they won’t be able to spin a loss in Virginia. So they’re raising the stakes of the election instead.
Biden is back stumping for Terry McAuliffe on Tuesday as he tries to hold off Glenn Youngkin, the Trump-backed Republican, in a bitterly tight race. With the election coming next week, both the president and the Democratic Party are increasingly embracing the notion that it is in large part a referendum on their handling of the pandemic and their support of massive government spending programs — as well as a broader repudiation of the Jan. 6 attacks on the U.S. Capitol.
In doing so, and even with Biden’s numbers dropping of late, Democrats are leaning into an approach that past administrations have shunned: freely tying their own fortunes to the outcome of an early, down-ballot race. A win for Youngkin, Biden’s aides and allies say, may not scuttle his domestic agenda. But it would be the first domino to fall, foreshadowing potential problems with the party’s planned midterm quest to paint Republicans as too extreme to govern.
“If they want to make sure that Donald Trump is front and center running for president again, then don’t show up to vote,” warned Chris Korge, national finance chair at the Democratic National Committee, who is close with McAuliffe. “This could be the ballgame here.”
Underscoring their seriousness, DNC Chair Jaime Harrison and other officials touted the multimillion investment the party has made in the state, along with repeat visits from Biden, the first lady and the vice president. “We’re all in,” Harrison said before a Richmond rally for McAuliffe over the weekend. “Virginia is very important; we want to make sure that we turn the vote out.”
Biden’s all-in act is a break from his former boss, Barack Obama, whose team worked to distance itself from the Democratic gubernatorial campaign in 2009 and, in 2013, talked up the challenges of winning in Virginia given their control of the White House. Biden’s approach comes with obvious risks, offering Republicans an added measure to gloat about White House backlash should Youngkin prevail. Nevertheless, the president’s team and other party leaders have come to the conclusion that there is no other path.
For one, there are too many parallels between Biden and McAuliffe. Both are establishment figures whose tempered views align on virtually every major issue. They’ve also concluded that to adequately stoke turnout, Democrats need to emphasize the existential stakes of the race, something Obama himself drove home in his speech for McAuliffe this weekend and Biden offered on the campaign trail over the summer.
The White House and its partners are closely coordinating their efforts and have been speaking with the McAuliffe campaign nearly every day, with one Biden adviser telling POLITICO they think McAuliffe has performed well and is hitting on issues they viewed as most important to voters.
“We think Terry is running a strong campaign,” the Biden adviser said, pointing to the contrasts he’s drawn with Youngkin over Covid-19 and mandatory vaccination as well as tying the Republican to former President Donald Trump. “He’s doing all the right things.”
While the adviser initially allowed that tradition holds that the party in the White House typically loses the Virginia governor’s race, the person quickly noted it was McAuliffe in 2013 who became the first candidate in decades to break that trend.
Overall, Youngkin has tried to strike a delicate balance between Trump’s MAGA supporters and the swing voters who fled the Virginia Republican Party in great numbers during Trump’s tenure in the White House. Youngkin has been endorsed by Trump several times and has accepted his support. But the former president has not appeared in person to stump for the candidate.
Youngkin has deflected questions about Trump hitting the stump for him throughout the campaign, and he has eschewed national surrogates in the closing days, mocking McAuliffe for bringing in a long list of big names. But that isn’t the only way he’s trying to thread the needle. One of the top issues Youngkin discussed during the primary was “election integrity,” yet he also said Biden was duly elected. Youngkin has encouraged everyone to get vaccinated, but he’s said mandates instituted by the Biden administration are too much and that he doesn’t believe Biden had the authority to institute them.
Youngkin also bristles at Democrats’ nearly ceaseless attempts to yoke him to Trump. “There’s an over and under tonight on how many times you are going to say ‘Donald Trump,’ and it was 10,” Youngkin shot back at McAuliffe during the second and final debate between the two men in late September. “And you just busted through it. You are running against Glenn Youngkin.”
Biden, in turn, has not been a regular part of Youngkin’s campaign. He has referenced the president occasionally, particularly when talking about the Justice Department’s October memo warning about the rising threats to school board members. That memo has generated significant backlash from Youngkin and conservatives nationwide who portray it as the federal government not helping to protect endangered officials but limiting the ability of parents to petition them.
Youngkin also dismissed Biden’s appearance in the state in a recent interview with Fox News. “If President Biden wants to come campaign in Virginia, come on, spend all the time you want here,” he said, in remarks that echoed past GOP hopefuls. “You can’t help but look at President Biden and recognize what a failed presidency looks like.”
But Biden is not omnipresent in Republicans’ advertising like he and other national Democrats will likely be in major 2022 races. No recent Youngkin TV ad mentions Biden by name, according to a search of transcripts from the ad tracking firm AdImpact, and the latest Youngkin ad mentioning the president on Facebook was in May.
For those reasons, it is possible that a McAuliffe loss won’t fully rebound on the White House and the Democratic agenda, even as they play up the stakes of the race. Local education issues have at times run hot in Virginia, as much as, if not more than, anything on the presidential level.
Biden’s own decision to up the stakes of the race comes as Virginia occupies a much different place in the minds of Democrats than it had under Obama. The state is bluer, which has convinced advisers and party leaders even more that a loss would be difficult to dismiss as an isolated political moment, even if the Democratic freakout over it will undoubtedly prove over-torqued. Last year, Biden won the state handily, and Republicans haven’t won a statewide race there in more than a decade.
In the closing weeks of that 2009 contest, Obama’s advisers bitterly complained about the Democrat, R. Creigh Deeds, contending he ran a bad race and didn’t hug the president closely enough. Obama officials insisted they had reason to absolve themselves of responsibility for the loss, which polls had shown was likely before it happened. Obama senior administration officials told reporters that Deeds failed to coordinate with the White House, particularly around its strategy to help boost turnout among Black and younger voters. Obama also was the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win the commonwealth’s electoral votes, a victory he had hoped would transform the political map for years to come.
Four years later, when Obama and Democrats threw everything they had at Republican Ken Cuccinelli, they remained far more bullish about McAuliffe’s chances of winning. Still, Obama advisers had tried to calibrate expectations by noting the headwinds he faced, as news reports at the time focused on the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act. McAuliffe squeaked by, giving Obama’s team the chance to publicly relish his support for Obamacare and criticize Cuccinelli’s fierce opposition to the law.
Biden’s short trip Tuesday night to Arlington comes amid flagging poll numbers for the president in the state and nationwide. In a recent Monmouth University poll, Biden’s job approval rating was well underwater: 43 percent approved of the job he was doing, and 52 percent disapproved. But his numbers are still high among Democrats — 84 percent approved, and 9 percent disapproved — and positive in Northern Virginia, where he has a plus-10 favorability.
That’s where Democrats want him in the closing days, said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist who has worked as a McAuliffe political adviser and former press secretary.
“Youngkin is trying to tell everyone he doesn’t have any surrogates,” Schwerin said. “I am really glad that Biden is trying to raise the stakes because we need voters to wake up. It turns up the noise.”