Two Opposing Strategies in Virginia's Gubernatorial Race | Opinion

Virginia was supposed to be a solid blue state. Joe Biden carried it by 10 points. Since 2013, Democrats have won 13 straight statewide elections. Terry McAuliffe is a former governor who started this race with a massive name recognition advantage and presumably a substantial advantage in knowledge about state government.

Yet today, as Virginians go to the polls, the race is too close to call. If McAuliffe does win, he will barely squeak through in a state Democrats should be carrying handily.

And, of course, there is a real possibility (I would even say a likely one) that Glenn Youngkin will become the next governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

What has made this election fascinating are the radical, almost diametrically opposed strategies of the two campaigns.

McAuliffe, who started the race with full knowledge of the state's problems, strangely decided that he had to beat Youngkin on national issues. He designed a campaign to solidify the blue vote, which seemed to be moving toward an unbeatable majority. This might have begun as bad advice from lazy consultants, but McAuliffe has clearly stuck with it.

Youngkin entered the race knowing that his greatest strength would be local issues and local concerns. He rejected the national rhetoric and focused on Virginia issues and Virginia solutions throughout the campaign.

McAuliffe's primary tactic was to make Youngkin into Donald Trump. After all, in 2020 Biden beat Trump in the state by more than 450,000 votes. The McAuliffe calculus was simple: consolidate the anti-Trump vote, convince people Youngkin is a Trump clone, and win handily.

Virginia governor candidate Glenn Youngkin
ABINGDON, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 31: Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks at a campaign rally on October 31, 2021 in Abingdon, Virginia. Youngkin is on the final day of a bus tour campaign through southwest Virginia in his race against Democratic candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe on November 2. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

This strategy fell apart for three reasons.

First, the core assumption isn't believable. Youngkin is a business executive who focused on state issues rather than national ones. In a U.S. Senate race, where national issues and national personalities really matter, perhaps the McAuliffe attacks would have had more punch. In a gubernatorial race, people simply do not translate McAuliffe's clearly political attack into a real argument.

McAuliffe is now in the worst of all possible worlds. The Trump base rejects the attacks. Suburbanites who may have voted for Biden in 2020 are seeing inflation, a border crisis and other policy failures associated with national Democrats—including, now, McAuliffe—and are turned off. Youngkin's practical, problem-solving approach is simply more comforting than McAuliffe's name calling. You can tell all this by the number of Youngkin signs in suburban Fairfax County (home to a massive Democratic majority that is the cornerstone of the McAuliffe strategy).

Second, most of Youngkin's messages have been about positive steps to improve Virginia's economy and the lives of Virginians. Youngkin's ads have been about policy proposals that stick with voters: getting rid of the grocery tax, suspending Virginia's recent gas tax hike and addressing the high cost of living by doubling the standard deduction for state income tax. At a time of high inflation, the Youngkin plan has practical appeal. It feels personal rather than political. By contrast, McAuliffe's nationalized campaign seems tone deaf and status quo. It failed to make Youngkin into Trump, but succeeded at making McAuliffe into Biden (who is facing the lowest approval of his presidency).

Finally, McAuliffe made a huge mistake when in a debate he said he did not think parents should have a say over school curricula. Youngkin's team was able to get an ad up within 12 hours. Since that final debate on Sept 28, Youngkin's ads have focused on McAuliffe's statement. The Democrat's comment supercharged the already raging debate in Northern Virginia over closed schools, critical race theory, transgender policy and the new admissions policy at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Recent stories—such as when the Loudoun County School Board just plain lied about the rape of a high school girl in the girl's bathroom by a boy in a skirt—have only increased the anger. A new story indicates McAuliffe's former law firm has been representing the Fairfax County School Board against a 12-year-old girl who claims to have been gang raped on a middle school campus.

The parents-versus-school-bureaucrats theme is working to Youngkin's advantage, and is keeping McAuliffe on defense.

We will know next Tuesday or Wednesday who won, but as election day dawns, it's clear that Youngkin's Virginia-oriented strategy is growing while McAuliffe's status quo national strategy is fading.

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The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.