In 2001 conservative Democrat Mark Warner beat Republican Mark Earley in the Virginia gubernatorial race 52.2% to 47.0%. Turnout (of registered voters) was 46.4%. In 2005, Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine beat former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore 51.7% to 46.0% with 45.0% turnout. Four years later, in 2009, turnout fell drastically to 40.4% and Republican Bob McDonnell beat very conservative Democrat Creigh Deeds 58.6% to 41.3%. Turnout crept up in 2013 (43.0%) and Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat the state's deranged and extremist Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli 47.8% to 45.2%, although Libertarian Robert Sarvis, who took 6.5% of the vote, probably was decisive in defeating Cuccinelli. Four years later, another conservative Democrat, Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie (53.9% to 45.0%) as turnout soared to 47.6%.
And that brings us to 2021, when McAuliffe is running again and will face Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, who you can see campaigning in the video above. Turnout for the 2020 presidential election was massive in Virginia, 74.64% (the highest in memory) and Biden beat Trump by 10 points-- 54.1% to 44.0%-- the best any Democratic presidential nominee had done since FDR in 1944!
The key to winning statewide in Virginia is to turn out your own base and to win a majority of independent and swing voters. Neither party has a big enough base to win without independents. Youngkin, a former CEO of the predatory private equity firm, the Carlyle Group, is smart enough to realize that... and to have designed a campaign to expressly hide his extremism. Although he's been endorsed by Trump, Youngkin admits in the video up top that he's trying to hide his far right views from the general voting public so he can get elected, at which point, he told Lauren Windsor of American Family Voices, the real Glenn Youngkin will be let lose on Virginia.
When Windsor asked him about extreme right positions on abortion, Youngkin let his guard down and said, "I'm gonna be really honest with you, the short answer is, in this campaign, I can't... When I'm governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get. So you'll never hear me support Planned Parenthood, what you'll hear me talk about is actually taking back the radical abortion policies that Virginians don't want."
The American Independent has its own video from the same fundraising event with the Loudoun County Republican Women's Club in Middleburg on June 17. Youngkin was talking the same kind of crap. "We're going after those middle 1 million voters who are, sadly, gonna decide this-- have decided elections for the last 10 to 12 years in Virginia, and they've moved a bit away from us. We're going to get them. We just got back a whole bunch of data today, and we're winning this group. This is the group that we have to go get."
The American Independent reported that "Abortion rights advocate and former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who is currently serving as co-chair of the left-leaning opposition research group American Bridge 21st Century, meanwhile, accused Youngkin of 'tricking Virginians into thinking he's reasonable-- when it's clear that he stands with Donald Trump and the extremists of the Republican Party.'"
Youngkin has tried to pivot to a more moderate message in order to change his party's fortunes. However, his ties to Trump-- who is unpopular in Virginia-- may complicate things.
Shortly after Youngkin won the GOP nomination, Trump gave Youngkin a glowing endorsement, saying "Glenn is pro-Business, pro-Second Amendment, pro-Veterans, pro-America, he knows how to make Virginia’s economy rip-roaring, and he has my Complete and Total Endorsement!"
Still, Youngkin cannot afford to lose Republican base voters in the state by moving too far to the middle.
The push and pull between appealing to both moderates and the GOP base is is the exact conundrum 2017 GOP nominee Ed Gillespie-- once hailed for his more moderate Republican profile-- had in the state.
Rather than court independent voters, Gillespie chose to go after the Trump-supporting base, running racist ads that voiced support for Trump's anti-immigrant platform. Gillespie went on to lose to now-Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam by 9 points.
Republicans are heavily targeting Virginia's gubernatorial election, hoping a win here could start a narrative that Republicans are on track to win majorities in the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.
"This is going to be a test about whether or not a candidate can appeal to a Trump base in a nominating battle then pivot and win suburban voters. [Republicans] nominated someone who looks like he might have the capacity to do that," Virginia-based political analyst Bob Holsworth told the Los Angeles Times in May.
Does an ad like this actually help Youngkin in Virginia? Well, if his campaign can just show it in blood red, backward counties like Lee, Tazewell, Grayson, Carroll, Russell, Wise, Buchanan, Dickenson, Scott, Craig, Wythe, Patrick, Bland... sure. But in the counties with more educated and productive Virginians (where most voters live)-- it's a political death wish.