Virginia, along with just four other states, attempts to decouple their state and federal contests by holding elections for state offices on odd-numbered years rather than coinciding with the midterm or presidential cycles. Once upon a time, this made state politics somewhat independent of national trends. Candidate-centered rather than party-centered campaigns were rewarded, and many voters split their tickets.
Under the contemporary political climate, this largely just means the party whose base is mobilized carries the day so long as they win over a modicum of independents. In 2009 Democrats got caught resting on their laurels and were beaten badly. The 2013 cycle was a pitched battle with leading Democrats benefitting from going up against awful Republican opponents, and in 2017 Democrats rode the emerging blue wave to victory. This November, Democrats run the risk of once again getting caught with their pants down.
Polling thus far is competitive, with former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe holding a modest lead. Three factors, though, seriously threaten Democrats’ prospects in the state. The first is Republican Glenn Youngkin. Youngkin, a political novice and former CEO of the Carlyle Group, avoided a bloody primary against several MAGA diehards’ thanks only to a wrinkle in the state’s electoral system that allows parties to sometimes nominate candidates via closed party conventions rather than traditional primaries. Thus far, Youngkin seems to have pulled off the balancing act of satisfying MAGA types while simultaneously convincing some swing and conservative-leaning voters that his politics are in the vein of traditional Republicans like Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan.
McAuliffe must also contend with a progressive third party candidate Princess Blanding of the newly established Liberation Party. There is little reason to think Blanding will receive many votes beyond hard-line socialist types, but this may still represent a problem for Democrats. In previous elections like McAuliffe’s last race for governor, Dems benefited from semi-high profile Libertarian candidates siphoning votes away from the Republican nominee. In this race, however, it’s McAuliffe that has to defend his flank. Lastly, Democrats have to contend with Virginia voters’ tendency to split their tickets.
While ticket-splitting nationwide has plummeted, it remains a factor in Virginia, where voters have long shown a tendency toward divided government. At the state level, Democrats currently have unified party control for the first time since the early 90s. As such, unless Democrats properly sell their accomplishments over the past few years, it is far from inconceivable that swing voters will favor checking Democrats in the form of either a Republican governor or state legislature. However, if Democrats navigate these headwinds, it will strongly suggest that the state has fully transitioned from purple to blue.
Kevin covers southern U.S. politics from Alabama