WASHINGTON — Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe brought President Joe Biden to the vote-rich suburbs Friday as he works to keep a national focus in the race and tie his Republican opponent to former President Donald Trump.
Speaking to an estimated 3,000 people at Lubber Run Park in Arlington, a heavily Democratic county outside Washington, Biden said the race would be seen as a bellwether of next year’s midterm elections.
“Virginia, you’ve got to elect him again. And I mean this, not just for Virginia, but for the country,” he said. “These off-year elections, the country is looking.” McAuliffe was governor from 2014 to 2018.
The visit signals a test run of the Democrats’ midterm strategy of highlighting national successes and rallying loyal voters. McAuliffe has kept the focus on links between his opponent, former Carlyle Group co-Chief Executive Officer Glenn Youngkin, and Trump — even daring the former president to visit the state, which he lost by 10 points.
Biden, who typically avoids mentioning Trump by name even when he draws a contrast with his predecessor, referenced him several times. When a heckler interrupted, he told the crowd not to drown him out, saying it was “not a Trump rally.” He called Youngkin “an acolyte of Donald Trump” and joked about McAuliffe’s strategy of tying Youngkin to Trump.
“Terry and I share a lot in common. I ran against Donald Trump, and so is Terry,” he said, drawing laughs. “And I whipped Donald Trump in Virginia, and so will Terry.”
The Youngkin campaign said McAuliffe is leaning on Biden in response to polls showing a tight race.
“Terry McAuliffe must be worried about his terrible poll numbers if he’s already calling in political favors this early in the campaign,” said spokeswoman Macaulay Porter.
McAuliffe is hoping the November election allows him to return to office in a state where governors aren’t allowed to serve two consecutive terms. The state’s off-year elections and mix of urban, suburban and rural voters also offer a testing ground for other Democrats on party messaging and campaign themes.
Biden sounded similar themes to the ones he’s expected to raise in next year’s elections, when the White House hopes to be able to brag about passing two massive bills still moving through Congress that would spend trillions upgrading the country’s infrastructure, extending a $300-a-month child tax credit, making community college free and providing paid family and medical leave.
Democrats are also banking on Biden’s popularity with voters — he’s remained just above 50% in most polls since his inauguration — plus increasing antipathy toward Trump, who has remained his party’s standard-bearer, despite the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol by his supporters.
In both elections, Democrats are seeking to buck long-standing trends. The party that wins the White House typically loses the Virginia governor’s mansion the following year, followed by House and Senate seats in the midterms. Even a handful of losses could cost Democrats control of either chamber, grinding Biden’s agenda to a halt.
In his last race, McAuliffe defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli by two percentage points, the first candidate from the sitting president’s party elected governor since 1973. If he wins this year, he would also be the first governor since 1974 elected to a second term in the state.
Republican strategists say Cuccinelli lost because of his reputation for aggressively opposing same-sex marriage and rejecting the science behind climate change, while Youngkin, who has never served in elected office, is more of a blank slate.
Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said this race is something of a reversal from McAuliffe’s last one, in large part because the state’s demographics have grown more favorable to Democrats.
“McAuliffe is clearly trying to nationalize the race, while Youngkin wants to localize it,” he said. “The last time, it was his opponent who wanted to nationalize it, while McAuliffe was the one who was trying to set out his own way.”
The Youngkin campaign is hoping to cut into Democratic support in the suburbs of Washington and Richmond, which swung away from Republicans during the Trump administration, while keeping the party’s base energized in the rest of the state. Youngkin is expected to spend millions of his own money.
Youngkin defeated more pro-Trump candidates in the Republican primary, including a state senator who was happily known as “Trump in heels.” Since winning the nomination, Youngkin has acknowledged that Biden won the 2020 election — contradicting Trump’s false claims of a rigged election — but he maintains “election integrity” is a top issue.
McAuliffe, a former head of the Democratic National Committee and longtime party fundraiser, has repeatedly sought to tie Youngkin to Trump. In his first televised advertisement, broadcast earlier this week, he called him “a loyalist to Donald Trump” and featured Youngkin saying that Trump “represents so much of why I’m running” in a May radio interview.
“Why is it that Glenn Youngkin and Donald Trump are so close?” McAuliffe said in his remarks Friday. “Because they share the same agenda, and you’d better believe that that agenda is completely out of touch with Virginians.”
At the same time, Youngkin is seeking to link McAuliffe to Trump. Youngkin put together his own ad pointing that Trump donated to McAuliffe’s unsuccessful 2009 campaign for the gubernatorial nomination and showing footage of him calling McAuliffe a “friend of mine” in 2017.
Trump has complicated the Youngkin campaign’s approach, however, issuing three statements in May and July, including one that argued that the previous Republican nominee lost because he failed to embrace Trump fully enough.
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