Saxman: Virginia Gubernatorial Debate Preview

Election Nerd Disneyland Opens Its First Ride of the Year!

Tonight at 7pm on CBS stations and Appalachian Law School’s YouTube Channel, gubernatorial candidates Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin will participate in their first debate. The moderator is Susan Page of the USA Today.

I think Michael Buffer would have been better.

It’s a 57-minute debate minus four minutes for the two minute closing remarks.

So, 53 minutes?

Throw in THREE other talkers – Page, the Dean of Virginia politics Bob Holsworth, and a CBS anchor Candace Burns and – who will in all likelihood take up around eight minutes of questions (throwing in the time lags between answers etc…) and you are quickly looking at maybe 45 minutes of candidates “debating.”

Let’s divide that down the middle and say that each candidate will have 22.5 minutes of talking.

On, what – maybe 6 to 7 questions? Do the math. That’s best case unless the candidates really mix it up – which is unlikely.

Now, if you were the debate prep teams and this was your first debate being held on one station with thousands of other options including a law school YouTube channel with seventy as in seven zero (no disrespect here) subscribers, how would you approach this debate?

First, you realize that given a 7pm time slot, and that even the most likely voters don’t even know the debate is being held. Then you think, hmmm … if very few are watching and my candidate has very little time to say anything and neither does the other guy … maybe we try to avoid screwing up?

Genius, Smithers. Genius….

That’s the goal tonight for both campaigns – don’t give our opponent anything that can be cut and pasted into ads or God forbid become a Gone Viral moment for social media. 47%. Deplorables.

That said, expect both candidates to stick to their talking points which will be aimed at motivating their voters to show up. Several prognosticators put turnout estimates in the low 50s, so we’re talking about vote goals of around 1.6 to 1.7 million for each candidate.

Both campaigns will send out the already written We Won the Debate memos and start down the fact checking of their opponents which will last maybe into the middle of next week’s email blasts as well as tweets designed to keep the Twidiots glued to their phones.

One of the topics heating up on the campaign trail that might actually swing votes – especially among the business community – is Virginia’s Right to Work statute. That might come up tonight.

Fortunately, most people of voting age have either forgotten or worse have never even known what this issue really means. I say fortunately because the policy has been so successful for so long that intellectual atrophy has set in and even the most ardent supporters don’t know how to message it correctly.

Polls show that the economy is one of the – if not the – top issue(s) of this campaign. Why? Because it always is. People are always concerned about the economy. And that lines up well with politics because both are about the future and extremely important to just about everyone. Therefore, business matters matter and Right to Work REALLY matters to business making investment decisions. Bigly.

Especially in a state that was a company before it was a colony. Virginia prides itself on having a growing, thriving economy.

Just two weeks ago, both Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin spoke at Virginia FREE’s Leadership Luncheon in Tysons. I introduced both candidates – at their request – and sat just slightly less than socially distant from each as they delivered their remarks to an overwhelmingly pro-business audience of over three hundred.

I have received a tremendous amount of feedback from the attendees. The swing from anti-Donald Trump centrist business leaders who voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and are considering or are solidly behind Glenn Youngkin is very real.

Yesterday, in fact, a Northern Virginia business leader told me that Terry McAuliffe had said during a meeting with the Northern Virginia Tech Council, that I had said McAuliffe was the best pro-business Virginia governor ever. I replied that no I did not say that. What I said was that McAuliffe was ONE of the best pro-business governors ever.

And I did it with intention knowing it might make the papers.

It’s objectively true. Virginia FREE calls balls and strikes – fairly and without fear.

From 2014 to 2018, Terry McAuliffe WAS one of the best pro-business governors ever. I say that because Virginia FREE members tell me that. From business lobbyists to trade association executives to agency heads – they all say “Yeah, Terry was very good for business.”

And then they turn the conversation like this – “But he did have a Republican legislature and I’m deeply worried about he will do going forward with these new Democrats….”

Then I mention that House Appropriations Committee Chair Luke Torian recently came out for the repeal of Right to Work and they say, “Oh, shit.”

So, if tonight Terry McAuliffe says the head of Virginia FREE said he was one of the best pro-business governors ever – it’s true. But this election, like all others, is about the future – not the past. If Terry McAuliffe continues to support the right of workers not to be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment, he’ll get a LOT of currently up for grab votes from the business community. If he doesn’t say that explicitly, McAuliffe could possibly lose the election over it.

If McAuliffe does win and does sign a repeal of right to work, he could go down in history and being the worst governor for business.

That’s just politics, folks.

Up next for the candidates is the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce debate and their PAC’s endorsement decision. If Terry McAuliffe says that he will continue his support of the right to work statute that protects workers from being compelled to join a union, my bet is he gets the NOVA BIZ PAC endorsement like he did in 2013 over Republican Ken Cuccinelli. That’s probably the biggest endorsement in the state because it actually moves votes – and not just in Northern Virginia.

If McAuliffe wavers or equivocates, he probably gets the NOVA Chamber to not endorse either candidate based on the rules of their PAC. If McAuliffe doesn’t get the NOVA Chamber endorsement, Glenn Youngkin can rightly say that McAuliffe lost it because he had it previously. So, the stakes are high – especially with Youngkin’s recently released internal polls showing him in the lead when third party candidate Princess Blanding is factored in.

But watch what issues and words Terry McAuliffe uses.

If he is hitting on those that are designed to motivate his base, that means he needs to because the purported drop in Democratic enthusiasm is real. If, on the other hand, McAuliffe is using more moderate, centrist language that means he’s trying to appeal to swing voters. My guess is that with early voting starting this weekend, he will be looking to get as many votes as possible banked and will be going for base Democratic voters. First things first.

Remember, McAuliffe had FOUR opponents in the Democratic primary. Three are black and one is a Democratic Socialist – all much younger. Now, if a well known, well-funded candidate draws that many opponents, it’s fair to conclude that the younger more progressive/diverse voters might not be that enthused about said candidate.

Tonight’s language will be a huge tell in that regard – climate change, racial justice or growing the economy? Maybe D) all of the above.

Glenn Youngkin, on the other hand, will be looking to, A) not make mistakes and, B) try to get across his message that he tested out the Virginia FREE lunch – that Virginia is on the wrong track, is too expensive, and is hollowing out its future. His address was a stinging indictment with plenty of supporting data and it was clear that Youngkin won the head nodding contest that day.

Youngkin has been described – rightly – as a very successful businessman. During my introduction, I mentioned how he learned the value of hard work when he had to take a job cooking in a diner after his father had lost his job. Youngkin told this story early in the GOP nomination contest in very effective ads. But many voters still have yet to see or hear that. After the Virginia FREE lunch one prominent Democrat mentioned that not only was Youngkin “very formidable” but the story from his youth really connected.

If Youngkin mentions that story tonight, it’s because people are still getting to know him and being seen as “the rich guy” might not resonate. Go figure. People like when someone is self made, but HATE it when they forget from whence they came.

What most don’t know, however, is what I also saw that day and might see more of tonight – Glenn Youngkin might be the unicorn candidate Republicans need. Coming from the super competitive private equity world, Youngkin is hard working, intelligent, data driven, and earnest. He’s done his homework. He knows his stuff and is used to intense give and take moments like he will experience tonight. Look, you don’t rise to his level in that world and NOT be good at what you do.

When Youngkin took the stage in Tysons, I could see this inner drive and competitive nature. It was a stunning contrast to the seasoned experience of Terry McAuliffe who worked off of hand written notes on a relatively small piece of paper about the size of an envelope. Terry was Terry and he’s really good at it.

Youngkin came up the stairs ready to go just as a three ring binder of his speech/talking points was being placed on the podium by a staffer from the other direction. That it happened was one thing, but it was the timing that impressed me. While the crowd paid attention to Youngkin, Youngkin paid attention to detail.

That’s being thorough. Impressive. Especially for a first time candidate.

As he turned the pages delivering his fact laden address, Youngkin would turn them with a precision and intensity I have not seen before in politics. It was like a prosecutor going point by point to a jury during his opening statements. But for him, I would imagine it was like the many companies that Carlyle Group bought over the years.

You know how today’s real estate market sales are almost devoid of property inspections? You know that moment of truth that’s used to drive prices down? Well, when a private equity firm is actively trying to purchase your business, it’s a million times worse. For a house, it would be a question about when was the roof installed. In PE firms? They would be going through the manufacturers of the roof and the people who installed the damn thing as well as what they ate that day. Also, what was the weather like during installation and fact check the barometric readings that day. I’m not exaggerating. PE firms are brutal because they have to be.

They pick everything apart making the asset prove its value before they buy it Well, Youngkin has done the same to Virginia and in his eyes, the data doesn’t support the marketing.

Youngkin’s challenge tonight will be getting in what he wants to say in the time allotted without alienating either his base, swing voters, or both.

And Terry McAuliffe will be trying to throw him off his game.

In the end, if tonight’s debate is the draw that I expect it to be, both camps will be thrilled. They will have spoken to their respective base voters without screwing up or going viral.

Maya Angelou famously said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

That will not apply tonight.

Tonight, Election Nerd Disneyland applies. This is for the few, the proud … the consultants. They need ads to make.

It’s a base turnout election and the candidates will be focused on that.

I might watch if I’m off the Peloton by then. Strongly recommend that thing. Wow, what a difference in my life that has become. Truly.

What? I might not watch?

I saw the preview two weeks ago with a ringside seat and let me tell you – these two are ready to rumble.

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