Over the last two decades, the state of Virginia went from a reliably Republican state, to a competitive purple state, and finally to a reliably blue state.

The dramatic change in the prevailing political winds in the Commonwealth have largely been fueled by the dramatic growth in the Washington, DC suburbs in northern Virginia – colloquially known as NoVA. Government workers and defense contractors, lobbyists, new immigrants, and young liberal whites moving out into the suburbs and even the exurbs has fundamentally remade Virginia politically.

Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican statewide since Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds in 2009. That long drought may about to be coming to an end for Virginia Republicans.

On the face of it, this election didn’t look promising for Republicans. Hillary Clinton (D) defeated Donald Trump (R) by 5 points in 2016 – a margin of victory that Joe Biden (D) doubled to 10% in 2020.

Additionally, Virginia Republicans faced a bruising primary for the nomination, a fight which exposed deep divides among establishment, centrist, and pro-Trump GOPers.

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Indeed, the party even fought over the way in which the party’s nominee would be chosen – eventually settling for a convention held in 39 satellite locations rather than a traditional primary (which many Republican officials worried would be won by the most conservative candidate).

In the end, political newcomer Glenn Youngkin – the former CEO of the private equity firm Carlyle Group – won the party’s nomination, and despite previous threats State Senator Amanda Chase (R) – whom Youngkin defeated in the nomination process – declined to run as an independent.

Youngkin would face off against popular former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. (Virginia has a quirky system that prohibits governors from serving consecutive terms – but they can serve non-consecutive terms.) 

A fractured Republican electorate, a political neophyte, a popular former Governor on the other side, a Republican party in decline for two decades, and all taking place just a year after Joe Biden won the state by double digits. None of this looked promising for Republicans.

A funny thing happened on the way to McAuliffe’s coronation, however: the political ground underneath shifted – and shifted dramatically.

First, Youngkin has been a surprisingly good campaigner – especially for a political newcomer. Unlike his opponent, Youngkin from the very beginning of his campaign zeroed in on education and the economy as his top issues – and he has been incredibly disciplined in sticking to those issues.

McAuliffe, on the other hand, has been all over the place. At times looking like he wants Virginians to think he’s running against Trump, at times focusing on COVID, at times trying to sound like a uniter, and only occasionally even running on his previous four years as Governor.

While Youngkin proved to be a surprisingly good and focused campaigner and McAuliffe a shockingly bad and undisciplined one, something else was happening nationally:  President Joe Biden’s poll numbers began their precipitous free-fall.

Multiple polling outlets now show Biden underwater in Virginia and even McAuliffe himself admitted that, saying:

“We are facing a lot of headwinds from Washington,” McAuliffe, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, said during a virtual rally with supporters on Tuesday. “As you know, the president is unpopular today, unfortunately, here in Virginia, so we’ve got to plow through.”

The final straw for McAuliffe may have been his shockingly bad performance in his debate against Youngkin at the end of September. Throughout the entire debate McAuliffe came off as annoyed with even having to answer questions or share the stage with Youngkin.

His dismissive, condescending, and combative style was a dramatic contrast to Youngkin’s smooth, polished, and even-keeled performance. That final debate was also the spot of McAuliffe’s biggest and most high profile gaffe to date, telling viewers – incredulously – that, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

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Between Biden’s cratering poll numbers and McAuliffe’s terrible campaign, we enter the home stretch with a race that was once thought of as out-of-reach now locked in a dead heat.

The last two polls out of Virginia have McAuliffe and Youngkin tied and the Real Clear Politics average of polls has seen the Democrats edge slip from +5% at the beginning of October to just +1.8+ today.

There are no moral victories in politics these days. If Youngkin comes close but in the end comes up short, then Virginia Republicans will be left wondering what it will actually take to right the ship in the Commonwealth.

If, however, Youngkin is victorious on November 2nd, not only will it be a sign of a Republican resurgence here in the state but also an ominous sign for the Democrats looking to the 2022 midterms.

 

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