The Virginia governor’s race will show who owns the suburbs after Trump

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Election 2021 Virginia Governor (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Election 2021 Virginia Governor (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Terry McAuliffe got an election-day eve present Monday when Donald Trump released a statement giving his full-throated support for Glenn Youngkin, his Republican opponent in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

“The Fake News media, together with some of the perverts doing ads ad nauseam on primarily Fox (Fox shouldn’t take those ads!), are trying to create an impression that Glenn Youngkin and I are at odds and don’t like each other,” Trump said in a tweet-like statement full of word vomit rehashing his old grievances. “Importantly, this is not true, we get along very well together and strongly believe in many of the same policies. Especially when it comes to the important subject of education.”

Polls last week showed the race narrowing between McAuliffe — who served as governor from 2014 to 2018 — and Youngkin after McAuliffe was initially seen as a shoo-in in a state that voted for Joe Biden by more than ten points. One Fox News survey showed Youngkin beating McAuliffe by eight points, while a poll from the Washington Post-Schar School poll last week showed the race about dead even within the margin of error.

Virginia’s gubernatorial election is typically seen as a bellwether, as the president’s party historically loses the race to Richmond, particularly since governors are limited to one term at a time in the state. The election typically sets the tone for the midterms. One exception was, incidentally, when McAuliffe himself won in 2013 after Barack Obama took the White House.

But beyond serving as a tea-leaf for the 2022 midterms, which favor Republicans at the moment, tomorrow’s race is also about whether the coalitions that solidified themselves during the Trump era will hold. The former president left a combover-shaped void in the body politic (and he may indeed he run again. Personally, I’m fully convinced he will after visiting Iowa). It’s ultimately a test of who will own the suburbs for the next decade and beyond.

The battle for the suburbs is a tug-of-war between liberals and conservatives because they each see them as natural parts of their electoral coalition. Conservatives see them as idyllic bastions where mostly white Christians migrated to escape the decadence of the cities, while Democrats see them as a clearinghouse for college-educated white voters who are more socially tolerant than their less-educated rural white counterparts might be.

At the beginning of the 2010s, Republicans picked themselves up in Virginia after Obama became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win the state. GOP candidate Bob McDonnell won the governor’s race in 2009 by focusing heavily on jobs. But that turned out to be the peak for Republicans in the Commonwealth (Virginians will go full “George Washington at Yorktown” on you if you call it a state), as McDonnell was found guilty on corruption charges before the Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

All the while, Obama won the Old Dominion again in 2012, followed by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. Former governor and Senator Tim Kaine’s selection as Clinton’s running-mate in 2016 further solidified his 2008 proclamation when Obama won the former heart of the Confederacy that “Ol’ Virginny is dead.” In 2018, Democrats flipped three House seats, including in the suburbs of northern Virginia and in longtime Republican districts like in the suburbs of Richmond.

This trend occurred nationwide, as plenty of college-educated white suburbanites helped Democrats win the House majority in 2018 and the presidency in 2020. Understandably, this has terrified Republicans, who in turn used a nominating convention rather than an outright primary to pick their nominee for governor to stave off a more extreme candidate.

In turn, Youngkin and other Republicans have gone all-in focusing on opposing schools teaching “critical race theory,” a niche legal concept which focuses on how racism is embedded in the law, but a term that Republicans have often used as a catch-all for teaching about racism, segregation and slavery. Youngkin’s campaign has promoted an ad with the mother of a Republican operative who sought to ban Toni Morrison’s book Beloved.

Republicans have also zeroed in on transgender bathroom policies in light of a sexual assault that happened in a Loudoun County school bathroom. The assault allegations are indeed troubling and The Washington Post reported that a judge found there was enough evidence to sustain charges against the boy in the case. This is further compounded by the fact the boy was allowed to transfer to another school.

But conservatives’ allegations that this assault happened because of transgender-friendly policies on bathrooms fall apart since, as HuffPost reported, the policy was passed in August and the assault happened at the end of May. That hasn’t stopped Republicans from saying that liberal Democrats’ policies toward transgender people have run amok while attempting to portray themselves to present themselves as protectors of moral decency.

This is why the commonwealth has become contentious a battleground as it was when Robert E Lee was forced to surrender at Appomattox (and in a sign of how much Virginia has changed, the capital city of Richmond recently removed its statue of the Confederate general, once considered a pride of the state). Obama and Biden have both campaigned for McAuliffe, while former vice president Mike Pence made a swing through as he tests the waters for 2024.

Whichever way the suburbs go will likely put the fear of God into Democrats after cutting it this close. Conversely, whether Youngkin pulls off a miracle or adds a little touch of red into an increasingly blue state, Republicans will see his overtures to mostly white parents as a sign they aren’t solidly in Democrats’ coalition just yet.

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