President Joe Biden on Friday was set to make his first major political foray since taking office, campaigning for a fellow Democrat whose race to be re-elected as Virginia governor could serve as a test of the national mood.
Biden was making a short trip across the Potomac River to back Terry McAuliffe, a former governor looking for a second term in a bellwether race historically seen as an early measure of voters’ judgment on the preceding year’s presidential election.
Current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, like all Virginia governors, is prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term. The other notable off-year election in 2021, for New Jersey governor, is not expected to be competitive, with Democrats likely maintaining control.
Thus, the Virginia race “will be the first real test of how voters feel about Democratic control. What does the electorate look like without Trump on the ticket?” said Alex Conant, who was a senior adviser to Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid. “The president’s approval ratings are relatively good, but no one trusts the polls anymore.”
With Democrats controlling both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, many eyes will be upon whether the Old Dominion has moved permanently into the blue column or if it will resume a decades-long trend—broken by McAuliffe’s 2013 election—of backing the opposite party by supporting GOP rival Glenn Youngkin.
In his prior gubernatorial race, McAuliffe only narrowly defeated GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli amid murmurs of vote-fraud in northern Virginia counties such as Fairfax echoing those seen recently in the 2020 election.
Nonetheless, the former Democratic National Committee chair was successful during his four-year tenure, while working in tandem with the Obama administration, in positioning Democrats on the path to securing permanent majorities in the once solid-red state.
Biden’s failures during his first six months have been legion: skyrocketing rates of inflation and illegal immigration; growing political and racial discord; and a failure, thus far, to compel more than half the country to be vaccinated.
Nonetheless, he was expected to point to his management of the pandemic and highlight the economic recovery during the first six months of his term, providing a window into his party’s messaging as it tries to maintain narrow margins next fall in both houses of Congress.
Biden and McAuliffe profile similarly, as candidates who don’t necessarily electrify the party’s base but who won their primaries on a promise of electability.
“With the Democratic nominee being so philosophically close and similar to Biden, many may see Virginia as a stronger bellwether than usual,” Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University.
McAuliffe’s ideology also parallels Biden’s in many ways, with both framing themselves as “centrist” options but governing to the extreme left once in office. Both also have a long history of ethical problems, including deep ties to Chinese financiers.
McAuliffe, a longtime flunkie and bundler for Bill and Hillary Clinton made a name for himself renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to top donors and orchestrating the exchange of nuclear secrets to China in return for campaign cash.
His widely anticipated win against a relatively weak field of opposition in his state’s gubernatorial primary was one of a string of recent victories by self-styled pragmatic candidates in relatively low-turnout elections. Because those tend to draw the most loyal base voters, McAuliffe’s race is being carefully watched by Democrats looking to shape their messaging for next year.
“It’s an important test for the Biden administration. The margins are so small, and he needs to be able to use his clout to help candidates get across the finish line,” said Adrienne Elrod, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign who also worked on Biden’s inaugural. “His message is simple: that he is delivering on promises on vaccines, record job growth and infrastructure.”
Despite the state trending blue over the last decade, the Virginia race is seen as competitive, and the DNC has pledged to spend $5 million to help McAuliffe’s campaign this year, a clear signal that the White House has prioritized the race.
Biden has long been an eager campaigner, on the road—and on the rope line—during his time as senator and vice president, and emerged as a successful surrogate in 2018 when Democrats won back control of the House.
While both Biden and McAuliffe have been active in Democratic politics for decades, they have relatively few direct political connections.
Biden’s political activities have been sparse during his first six months in office, mostly just a few virtual fundraisers. And his travel has also been limited because of the pandemic.
Biden hasn’t ventured farther west than Texas, where he visited in February to tour the site of devastating storms. And he has not spent a night at a hotel in the United States, limiting his travel to states where he can return to the White House or home to Delaware at the end of the day.