By Philip Wegmann for RealClearPolitics
MCLEAN, Va. — The party faithful had been chatting amongst themselves for three hours, periodically craning their necks for a glimpse of the cable news playing on mute in the press pen, nervously refreshing their drinks at the cash bar, and quietly complaining about the lack of reliable wi-fi in the Hilton ballroom, when Terry McAuliffe finally arrived.
He didn’t say much.
In a speech that barely lasted five minutes, the normally chatty politician thanked his supporters and his family and his staff before quickly leaving the stage. Notably, he did not concede. And, for the first time in a long time, the Democratic candidate for governor didn’t say a single word about Donald Trump.
McAuliffe’s strategy had been to tie his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, to the former president so often that the race would become a replay of the 2020 election in a state Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points.
Instead, McAuliffe wound up turning his own race into a referendum on whether Democrats could win without Trump in the picture. Prior to Tuesday night, there was measured optimism that this gambit would work. “We are very hopeful,” Debbie and Thomas Siebert said of McAuliffe’s chances.
Longtime friends of the candidate, Debbie Siebert and her husband, a former ambassador to Sweden, added early in the night that “we are realists too.”
Some caution was in order, especially with next year’s midterms on the horizon. “Virginia is a leading political indicator,” observed Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, “mainly because there’s nothing better in 2021.”
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Farnsworth can be forgiven for not seeing the looming New Jersey surprise looming — no one else did either — but his point about Virginia being a bellwether is a bracing one for Democrats. Republican Bob McDonnell won the race for governor in 2009 before his party regained the majority in the House of Representatives in a 2010 rebuke to President Obama.
A similar thing happened in 2017 when Ralph Northam was victorious a year before Democrats retook the House. Hoping to make history by bucking that trend, McAuliffe and Democrats went all in.
It seemed like everyone was there in the final weeks. Biden and Obama both hit the stump. So did Vice President Kamala Harris. Even singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams made an appearance. Then there was the old Virginia boss himself. “If anybody could pull this off, it is Terry,” John Seher explained.
Another longtime friend of McAuliffe and a former Biden Senate aide, Seher told RealClearPolitics there was “not one stone he left unturned, one hand he hasn’t shaken, one baby he hasn’t kissed, one dog not petted.” Waiting on early returns, he added that no matter what, even “if it doesn’t work out, he can always say, ‘I did my best.’”
Democrats knew what was at stake, including the vice president, who warned a week before the election that “what happens in Virginia will, in large part, determine what happens in 2022, 2024, and on.”
By Tuesday night, most McAuliffe supporters acknowledged that the Democratic machine was chugging uphill and that the obstacle was bigger than just Youngkin. The mild-mannered Republican in a fleece jacket had become the standard-bearer in a larger struggle over culture as much as politics.
Exhausted by the pandemic and angered by liberal school lesson plans, parents were flooding into local school board meetings to protest as early as this summer. When McAuliffe said in a September debate that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” Youngkin seized the issue.
The Republican said he would ban critical race theory in schools, and he promised to give parents the option to opt their children out of reading material they found objectional. McAuliffe accused him of trying to “bring his personal culture wars into our classrooms.” Biden agreed and, in the final days of the campaign, echoed the argument that Youngkin wanted to “ban books.”
Most of all, the two compared the Republican candidate to Trump. At a campaign stop one week before the election, Biden invoked his predecessor’s name two dozen times in a speech lasting just 18 minutes.
At least with the Democratic base, that was motivation enough. Debbie Siebert dubbed Youngkin “a Trumpster without a zipper problem,” a reference to the 45th president’s sexual extracurriculars. “So finally you have a Trumpster with a nice personality,” she added later, “but he’s still a Trumpster, OK?”
If the comparison stuck, it was not enough to dissuade voters from flocking to support the Republican. When Youngkin jumped out to an early lead Tuesday night, some of the McAuliffe faithful who had been milling about in the lobby retreated to the hotel bar to watch Game Six of the World Series side-by-side with CNN. Nancy Espinoza and Christian Martinez stuck behind.
They were young volunteers with the liberal immigration group CASA in Action, and they had been knocking on doors in the rain all day to help get out the vote. “We are not going to lose hope,” Espinoza said even after the Cook Political Report called the race for Youngkin. “It isn’t over until it is over,” added Martinez before noting hopefully, “We’ve seen in past elections that we’ve got to wait until all the votes are counted in the end.”
As the evening dragged on and their numbers didn’t improve, some Democrats fretted openly that the Trump offensive might have been a mistake. About an hour before McAuliffe went on stage, Rep. Don Beyer still hadn’t made up his mind. “I guess we will find out tonight,” he said.
“Clearly, Trump was very unpopular a year ago,” Beyer continued. “He probably is not more popular now but is less relevant: He isn’t president, his Twitter account is turned off and he isn’t on Facebook. You know? So I don’t think McAuliffe could run against Donald Trump as effectively as Joe Biden did.”
He added, though, that “it is certainly annoying for Terry McAuliffe to see Glenn Youngkin go full Trumpian to win the primary and then not even mention his name again!”
That’s not actually what Youngkin did, but the Virginia congressman was making a larger point about the direction of his party. He predicted that, come the midterms, he and his colleagues will “want to talk about all the stuff we’ve gotten done — all the Democratic promises, the Joe Biden promises, that we’ve kept.” The conversation will naturally have shifted by then, Beyer explained, and “I doubt seriously that 2022 will be about Trump.”
Before leaving for Europe, Biden had pushed his party to set aside its differences and back his $1.75 trillion compromise on social spending. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” he reportedly told congressional Democrats about an upcoming vote on that agenda.
He was not successful, the president departed for an international climate summit in Glasgow empty-handed, and Virginia Democrats were left to talk about “the former guy.”
Julius Reynolds is glad Congress didn’t rush a package through. The president of Service Employees International Union local 512, he noted the “many people saying they’re annoyed with some of the progressives holding up the infrastructure plan.” But that is the wrong way to look at it, he said. “You’ve got to realize this is a plan that is going to finally help those people that live at the margin.”
A loss in Virginia could end up dooming that legislation, however. Political commentator David Axelrod worried last night that a McAuliffe loss could spook moderates from swing districts. Putting himself in their shoes, the former Obama adviser wondered aloud, “Are you rethinking tonight your vote on this reconciliation package? Are you thinking, maybe … you shouldn’t do it?”
Legislative strategy was the last thing on McAuliffe supporters’ minds as the evening dragged on and hope of victory dimmed. Siebert, the former ambassador, admitted, “I thought it would be over by over 9.” Contemplating what a loss could mean for his party nationally, he returned to Biden’s charge that Youngkin wanted to ban books, specifically the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved,” which is often assigned in advanced-placement English classes.
The Republican aired an ad in the last week of the campaign featuring a Virginia mother who championed a bill years ago to have parents notified of the explicit reading material. “‘Beloved,’” Siebert concluded, “is now part of the lore of how Republicans run in the suburbs.”
The couple reminisced about the victories and losses they had supported McAuliffe through. But this race felt different, they both agreed. “This cultural stuff is way over the line in my opinion,” the former ambassador said. “It is a sickening way to gain the loyalty of people,” Debbie Siebert added. “It’s just sick.”
“I guess McAuliffe gets a nice Cabinet position in the Biden administration now,” he joked.
The president hasn’t reacted to the race just yet. He knew what happened before he was back stateside. On his way home from Europe, the televisions on Air Force One reportedly flipped back-and-forth between CNN and Fox News. The networks called the race for Youngkin around 12:30.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.
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