Virginia Republicans Get Their Chance, Courtesy of Washington

The first Virginia campaign for Governor that I witness first-hand was in 1993. Democrats nominated Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who was the overwhelming favorite against one-term Congressman George Allen. Throughout the summer – usually the dormant time for campaigns – Bill Clinton spent nearly all of his political capital to get a tax increase through Congress. Nationally, the Democrats were battered and bruised. Come September, the governor’s race was even. The rest is history.

As much as we would like to think voters understand the difference between Washington and Richmond, national events usually have great impact in Virginia statewide races. The party ascendant at the national level gains excited voters; the one taking its lumps has trouble in that department; and swing voters usually gravitate towards the party that seems more competent and popular. In 1993, Clinton helped sink Mary Sue Terry. In 2005, the Bush-led GOP left Jerry Kilgore at sea. Whatever Craig Deeds’ failings as a candidate, he was not helped at all by the Democrats’ falling popularity in Washington. The 2013 campaign rode the waves of Obamacare, from the futile attempt to delay it (helping the Democrats) to the botched rollout (helping the Republicans). Then there was Trump.

For most of 2021, Washington Democrats were largely staying out of Terry McAuliffe’s way, while Republicans were forcing Glenn Youngkin to talk out of both sides of his mouth regarding the Big Lie. All in all, the national events weren’t helping a party that desperately needed it.

Last week, they finally went the RPV’s way.

The fall of Kabul swiftly ended whatever honeymoon Joe Biden still had with the voters. Five-thirty-eight‘s approval tracking has Biden below 50%. Presumption of “the adults back in charge” have been shaken.

So what can the RPV do to take advantage? I can’t see much beyond riding the wave. How big that wave will be depends on the following.

How long Afghanistan stays in the spotlight. In theory, if Biden holds to his 31 August deadline, Afghanistan will fade during month of September. By October, the impact will still be real, but smaller and less visible.

What else Biden and the Democrats do. There are still two major pieces of legislation working their way through Congress. The budget reconciliation, while questionable policy, could re-excite the Democratic base. The infrastructure bill will appeal to swing voters. If Biden, get can either signed before November, it will help. If not, the appearance incompetence will be further cemented in the minds of voters.

What Trump does. Just this past weekend, Trump changed the subject (however briefly) to his own flaws and foibles, including his halting attempt to encourage COVID vaccinations and his bizarre praise for the Taliban. The more he talks about the latter, the easier it is for Biden et al to share blame with the folks behind the idiotic February 2020 deal with the Taliban. Once again, Donald Trump could be the Democrats’ best recruiter.

COVID. The great political wildcard is still out there wreaking havoc. The two nominees have taken opposite sides on Governor Northam’s mask mandate for schools. What will the school year look like? Your guess is as good as mine. If it goes well, T-Mac can cite Northam’s leadership. If it goes badly, Youngkin can ask, “what was the point?” The most likely result is a combination of the two that just confirms voters’ priors. Mask mandates are popular in already highly-vaccinated areas and unpopular in low-vaccine zones. So the places most in need of mask usage are the ones least likely to enforce it.

In other words, it’s still a steep, uphill climb for Virginia Republicans – but at least they can see the path.

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