Virginia Tested Kamala Harris' Campaign Skills Outside California. Her Party Lost

The first major test of Vice President Kamala Harris' clout among Democratic voters outside her home state ended with a loss for the party when Democrat Terry McAuliffe was defeated in his bid to become Virginia's next governor.

Harris, along with several other high-profile Democrats, campaigned alongside McAuliffe in the weeks leading up to the competitive election and also visited New Jersey, the other state that held a gubernatorial election on November 2. While sitting Democratic Governor Phil Murphy held a strong lead in the polls ahead of New Jersey's election, McAuliffe's initial polling advantage tapered in the final days of the race, with Republican Glenn Youngkin eking out a narrow lead in the polls by the time Election Day arrived.

Heading into the Virginia election, many politicians viewed the race as a test for Democrats ahead of next year's midterms. Republicans during the 2022 election cycle will strive to take control of either or both chambers of Congress, which currently have slim Democratic majorities.

Before the elections in Virginia and New Jersey, Harris was called in to her home state of California to campaign on behalf of sitting California Governor Gavin Newsom, who in mid-September faced a recall election. Harris returned to California to support Newsom not only as the sitting vice president but as a former U.S. senator for California, a former district attorney for San Francisco and a former attorney general for the state, all positions to which she was elected. Newsom ultimately defeated the recall effort, with nearly 62 percent of voters choosing to keep him in office for the remainder of his term.

California's gubernatorial recall election, one of only two in the state's history, was viewed as a preliminary test for Democrats after the party gained control of both the White House and Senate following the 2020 election. But while California's recall election asked voters whether they wanted their sitting governor to be removed from office before completing the final year of his term, Virginia's election asked voters to pick which candidate they preferred to serve the next full term leading their state.

Kamala Harris Terry McAuliffe
Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned with Democrat Terry McAuliffe ahead of Virginia’s gubernatorial election, which has been called for Republican Glenn Youngkin. Above, Harris attends a campaign event with McAuliffe on October 29, 2021, in Norfolk, Virginia. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Virginia also presented the vice president with the first opportunity to campaign on behalf of a Democratic candidate in a competitive race outside her home state.

Harris became actively involved in the Virginia election in the final weeks of the race. She attended two campaign events with McAuliffe in October and appeared in a political ad that drew controversy after it was shown in churches throughout the state, raising questions among some about whether the ad was in violation of an IRS rule.

Harris was not the only high-profile Democrat to campaign on behalf of McAuliffe. As part of his campaign's efforts to rally voter support, McAuliffe welcomed well-known politicians and celebrities alike to his campaign events, a guest list that included President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, former President Barack Obama, and musicians Pharrell Williams and Dave Matthews, among others.

Since so many people rallied with McAuliffe in support of his campaign, it is impossible to determine the impact any one visitor had on McAuliffe's bid for voter support, according to Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University professor specializing in American politics.

"There is no way to tell what net effect she had—she was part of the choir of Democratic leaders who came through to support McAuliffe," Shapiro told Newsweek.

The close nature of the race in Virginia and its timing in the wake of Biden's win last fall also complicates efforts to gauge any one politician's ability to attract or rally voters, he added.

"It is not uncommon for candidates for governor from the party in the White House to lose elections that follow the election of a president from their party," he said.

Looking ahead of next year, Shapiro said it is unlikely that the outcome of Virginia's race will impact the extent to which Harris may campaign on behalf of Democrats running for office in 2022.

"Her being the VP is very important and more so in the context of her appeal to African American voters, who are such an important part of the Democratic base," he said. Those within the Democratic Party "will do all they can to mobilize their base" ahead of the midterms with Harris' ongoing involvement expected.

Speaking with Newsweek by email before polls closed on Election Day, Shapiro said a loss for McAuliffe would be tough for the party overall and would likely make next year's election cycle even more difficult than expected.

"If the Democrats lose, all of the Democratic leaders attached to the election will take a reputational hit that will make the 2022 campaign more challenging than it already is for the Democrats," he said.