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In Virginia, a test of posts and candidates ahead of midterm exams

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Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat running for governor of Virginia, has summed up the election in one sentence.

“It all comes down to the same thing here: Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump,” he said recently.

Virginia governor contests have long been a barometer of the national political mood each year in a new presidency. For Democrats, the stakes have never seemed so high: A defeat for Mr McAuliffe, a popular former governor seeking his old job, could spell a devastating blow to the party’s confidence ahead of next year’s midterm elections and for her strategy of opposing Mr. Trump even if he’s not on the ballot.

For Republicans, there’s less at stake: Their nominee, Glenn Youngkin, a first-run candidate, could narrowly lose given Virginia’s increasingly bluer hue, but still represent a proof of concept that a GOP candidate could defeat the party’s moderates and hardliners. can unite without going all in on Trumpism.

Whether it’s Mr McAuliffe hammering away at Mr Trump’s attempts to undermine the 2020 election or Mr Youngkin walking on Trump’s tightrope – nodding at the grassroots level over electoral fraud while partially distancing the former president – Mr Trump is an unavoidable factor in Virginia’s campaign.

The unexpectedly tense contest, which is effectively the opening act of the 2022 midterms, will also test the appeal of the two parties to the most crucial and coveted voters across the country – those in densely populated and diverse suburbs, who are widely expected that they decide the race in Virginia as well as control Congress next year.

“I think every Democrat is following Virginia like a whistleblower,” said Gordon Hintz, the Democratic leader of Wisconsin’s State Assembly. “It certainly set the tone for the 2018 cycle in 2017.”

Broad strategies aside, each candidate has landed on a favorite topic in the last two weeks before the November 2 election, both of which are likely to feature prominently in races elsewhere. For Mr. McAuliffe, it’s about abortion rights, which are being threatened for the first time by the Supreme Court. For Mr. Youngkin, the problem is parental controls in schools, which could increase his appeal to independents who have left the GOP under Mr. Trump.

Polls show a statistically parallel race in Virginia, with worrisome implications for President Biden, who easily won the state. Democrats say they are facing stiff but temporary headwinds: rising inflation, the ongoing pandemic and an impression of Democratic incompetence in Washington, where the party is at a stalemate over getting ahead of its big domestic priorities.

“To his credit, Youngkin has done a really good job of maintaining the loyalty of the Trump base while trying to generate some suburban Democratic Party defectors,” said Bob Holsworth, a longtime political analyst in Virginia. “If a Republican can win in Virginia by talking about critical race theory, about his pro-life beliefs — a 10-point Biden state — that would be much more than a wake-up call for Democrats. It would be someone playing reveille in their bedrooms with a trumpet.

Virginians, who vote for governor a year after the presidential election, have a long track record of rebuking the party that controls the White House. Mr. McAuliffe’s 2013 victory, a year after President Barack Obama was re-elected, was the only exception in four decades. During the Trump years, the state swung even more toward Democrats in state and federal elections, driven by highly educated voters in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and Richmond, who rejected the president’s divisive leadership.

Mr Biden’s capture of 54 percent of suburban voters last year was primarily what put him in the White House. Suburbanists tipped off battlefield states including Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona. They also hold the key to the majority of competitive House races in 2022. Whether the Democrats have earned the suburbs’ long-standing loyalty or whether Mr. Biden just “rented” them, as strategists like to put it, is an important one. question that could help clarify the Virginia election.

Republicans think they already know the answer. “The proximity of this race suggests that the suburban swing voter will soon be turning back to Republicans,” said Dan Conston, chairman of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that focuses on House races. “That’s a warning sign for the many sitting Democrats in suburban neighborhoods.”

But Democrats believe fear of Trumpism will keep suburbs in their corner. New York Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, chair of the Democrats’ 2022 congressional campaign, recently said he was advising members in competitive suburban seats to fight “Trump toxicity without Trump on the ballot.”

“You have to remind them that the other side is for insurrection, when we’re trying to do infrastructure,” Mr Maloney said, speaking to the liberal podcast “Pod Save America.” “They are for fighting, when we try to solve problems.”

From the start, Mr. McAuliffe to Mr. Youngkin and Mr. Trump to merge in the minds of voters. A new TV ad this week attempts to link Mr. Youngkin to the former president’s ambiguity about the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Mr. McAuliffe was given fresh ammunition last week when Mr. Trump called to support Mr. Youngkin for a rally that began by reciting the pledge of allegiance with a flag that organizers say had been carried in Washington on Jan. 6. Mr. McAuliffe jumped in and Mr. Youngkin, who had not attended the meeting, issued a statement calling the use of the flag “weird and wrong”.

Mr. Youngkin has sought to transcend the divisions of the party, appealing to Mr Trump’s supporters as well as moderate Republicans and independents. The enthusiasm that some polls say Virginia’s Republicans have about the Democrats suggests he’s had some success unifying the party.

That is not an easy feat. “Youngkin seems more adept at trying to evade Trump,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who works for several Senate candidates in 2022 competitive races. “The degree to which that is successful will send a strong signal to many races in the whole country.”

Mr. Youngkin started the general election with an emphasis on the conventional Republican issues of taxation and job creation, but now leans aggressively on conservative attacks on the way race is taught in schools and on giving parents more control.

A longstanding uproar in Loudoun County, targeting school administrators over racial equality policies and transgender students, suggests that Mr. Youngkin could be able to tackle a problem that turns out not only to be conservatives, but also to convince some suburban moderates.

Jon Seaton, a Republican strategist from Virginia, said the school issue was breaking through to suburban parents. “In my small focus group on the sidelines of weekend football games — I’m pretty sure they didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 — some are at least extremely frustrated with what’s going on in the public schools,” he said. Mr. Seaton, who advises candidates across the country, “It is certainly possible that, for the first time in a very long time, education will become something Republican candidates are running for.”

Urgently pressing the issue, Mr. Youngkin spent more than $1 million on a TV ad that takes a statement by Mr. McAuliffe from a debate, somewhat out of context, in which he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they have to teach.”

A Fox News poll of likely voters in Virginia taken last week showed a split decision on education. By a 23-point margin, parents among likely voters said they should have a say in what schools teach. When asked which candidate they supported, however, the parents preferred Mr. McAuliffe 53 to 43 percent.

As for Mr McAuliffe, abortion is the issue he has leaned towards in the final stretch of the race, spending big on a TV ad with hidden camera video of Mr. Youngkin acknowledging his opposition to abortion. publicly downplaying to win independent voters, but promising to “go on the attack” if elected.

A second McAuliffe TV ad on abortion predicted that the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade and in which Mr. Youngkin said he was against adding a right to abortion to the Virginia Constitution.

Historically, a determined focus on abortion has driven mostly conservative voters. With abortion opponents on the brink of achieving what they’ve long strived for, the power of the issue may shift to Democrats. The ability to motivate voters gets a trial run in Virginia.

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