'The Worst Campaign I've Ever Been Involved in': Democrats Blast McAuliffe In Virginia

Atima Omara knew something was wrong.

The Virginia Democratic National Committee (DNC) member and expert on outreach to Black voters was looking for a sign — any sign — that Terry McAuliffe's campaign was doing the basic blocking and tackling necessary to energize Black voters and eke out a win in a surprisingly competitive Virginia governor's race.

But she wasn't seeing much.

Visiting her family in southern Virginia in October she finally heard radio ads on Black radio stations, perhaps due to a late-hour infusion of new ads by the DNC, included in an earlier $6 million investment aimed in part at voters of color. But her mother, a consistent voter even in special elections, was worried, wondering, Where are the Democrats?"

Republican Glenn Youngkin's campaign had knocked on her door but McAuliffe's campaign had not.

"It was the worst campaign I've ever been involved in," Caitlin Bennett, chair of the Fredericksburg Democratic Committee, told Newsweek.

Even before the dust settled on Youngkin's 50.7% to 48.6% victory over McAuliffe on Tuesday, fingers were already being pointed at a campaign that is said to have neglected Black and Latino voters in favor of chasing white suburban women who abandoned Democrats in the end anyway.

In the 2020 presidential election in Virginia, for example, Joe Biden edged Donald Trump among white women 50% to 49%, but Youngkin turned the tables on McAuliffe, beating him badly with the group 57% to 43%.

"Stop expecting white women voters especially in the suburbs to save the Democratic agenda," Omara wrote in a Twitter thread on Wednesday. "They aren't loyal. Dance with the people who bring you to the dance."

In an interview with Newsweek she said the white political consultants and senior staff that run campaigns feel they know white voters because they figure they are like their moms, former classmates, and friends.

There is a belief, she argued, that things like Donald Trump's comments about women or the Texas abortion ban will drive suburban women to vote blue, but "more often than not they look at their options and still choose to vote for the Republican party."

While Black voters gave McAuliffe 86% support, according to exit polls, there is widespread belief that votes were left on the table in an election with a razor-thin 2% margin of victory.

But when it comes to Latino voters, there is confusion that only precinct vote totals will alleviate. The same exit polls used by most news organizations showed McAuliffe with a conventional 66% support among Latinos, but the AP VoteCast, a project of the Associated Press and Fox News, found Youngkin to have received 55% support from Hispanics.

While the full data is not yet available on a group that comprised 5% of the electorate on Tuesday, Nate Cohn, a data journalist at the New York Times, said that the four precincts where Latinos are a majority underperformed modeling for a tied election, perhaps suggesting "continuing, disproportionate Democratic weakness with the group."

That wouldn't be a surprise to Latino political strategists like Chuck Rocha, a former senior advisor to Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, who did some work in Virginia on the governor's race.

He said calls with offers of assistance to the McAuliffe campaign went unanswered.

"Latino operatives reached out to the state party and the McAuliffe campaign immediately after the primary to offer our assistance, but no calls were returned," he told Newsweek. "We knew that without a Black woman or someone on top of the ticket to motivate our base that there needed to be an investment in the Latino community, and our advice fell on deaf ears."

A Democratic source who did private polling of voters in Virginia said they were focused on the economy and tired of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they chided the McAuliffe's campaign inattention to Black and Latino voters.

"Six months ago they didn't think they needed those voters because Terry was up by a lot," the source said. "But when they realized they did need those voters it was too late."

In response to this story, the Virginia Democratic Party sent information on the Terry for Virginia Latino outreach efforts and a link to a Politico story they felt disproved the criticisms.

They included that he was the first Virginia gubernatorial candidate to do an interview with Univision DC when he announced his candidacy in December, the "Todos con Terry" coalition of more than 50 Latino leaders from across Virginia announced in September, a director of Latino outreach solely dedicated to organizing in Latino communities throughout Virginia, and a six-figure statewide Spanish language media campaign in Virginia with People For the American Way.

Kristian Ramos, a Democratic political consultant and Latino vote expert, said Biden has created a strong economy, 70% of the country has been vaccinated, and Virginia has a $2 billion budget surplus.

But Virginia's voters weren't told a positive story that resonated on those issues.

"Latinos and Blacks, who have been overwhelmingly hit hard by the pandemic and feel incredible economic anxiety, have no idea what Democrats in Virginia have done to make their lives better," he told Newsweek. "They don't know what Terry was going to do or what Biden has done."

One thing McAuliffe did say was considered a major gaffe that hurt his campaign as the effects of the pandemic on education rose to prominence.

During a debate at the end of September, Youngkin charged that McAuliffe believed "school systems should tell children what to do. I believe parents should be in charge of their kids' education."

McAuliffe said that he was "not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions," then added, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach."

That comment appeared to hurt the Democratic candidate and former governor, especially as a debate has seeped into school districts over "critical race theory" and the concept that "race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies," according to a definition by Education Week.

A longtime Latino Democrat who likes McAuliffe and briefly supported his presidential exploration ahead of 2020 said they received two calls from the campaign in October, but they were for money, not about help with strategy.

The source said a lesson Republicans will take from Youngkin's win is the salience of critical race theory with voters in downballot races in 2022.

"It's already part of the playbook they're going to adopt in these House races," the source said, "because they figured out that Jim doesn't want little Jimmy to hear about how bad his grandfather was in the civil rights era."

With respect to Black voters, there was a feeling Vice President Kamala Harris was misused or underutilized in Virginia as well.

A buzzy event featuring Harris and "Drop It Like It's Hot" superstar Pharrell Williams was sparsely attended and wasn't seen as particularly helpful when Pharrell told voters he wasn't there to tell them who to vote for but just to vote. The comment was seen as permission to vote for Youngkin, while Pharrell spoke in front of a "Terry for Virginia" banner.

"I can't speak to how [Harris] was underutilized but she didn't come through as much as you would expect," Omara said. "The fact that in the last three weeks they called Stacey, Kamala, Obama, the president and the first lady tells you they realized "Oh crap, we need to rouse the troops, and not just moderates, but the independents."

The McAuliffe campaign responded that beyond the candidate doing weekly interviews on predominantly-Black urban and gospel radio stations to remind Black voters about the importance of voting early, it was also the first year that Virginians could vote on Sunday, with the coordinated campaign organizing "Souls to the Polls" events led by Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

But Bennett with the Fredericksburg Democrats said that while lack of engagement with groups like Latinos is a problem, voter engagement in general was a mess.

"This campaign was a head-scratcher from the beginning," she said. "There was a lack of communication with the Democratic party of Virginia, a lack of communication with individual campaigns, and chairs seemed to be on a 'last to know' basis."

McAuliffe's strategy of attempting to tie Youngkin to Trump was also panned, with Bennett calling it a "major mistake."

"Democrats are tired of hearing about Trump," she argued. "We've been fighting Trump for four years, it's emotionally exhausting and we want a vision of the future that's positive and exciting."

Bennett's list of offenses by the campaign is long — she says local Democrats needed resources like yard signs in September, not mid-October, to get buzz about the election going.

But she said the number-one resource in a campaign is the candidate, and in the case of McAuliffe, he wasn't holding enough rallies around the state.

"He wouldn't come," she said, noting that Democrats had to instead rely on other surrogates. "Where was Terry? I couldn't tell you."

Black, Latino voters support Terry McAuliffe
McAuliffe speaks at an election night rally on November 2, 2021 in McLean, Virginia before the race was called for Republican Glenn Youngkin. Win McNamee/Getty Images