‘People are going to get skittish:’ White House sweats over McAuliffe

President Joe Biden can’t afford Terry McAuliffe to lose the governor’s race in Virginia — and the White House knows it.

It’s a scenario the president and his aides and close allies increasingly view as a real possibility, given tightening poll numbers in the race and signs of Democratic apathy. The White House, Democratic National Committee and outside partners are closely coordinating their efforts and speaking almost daily, according to three people familiar with the dynamic. Just over a month before Election Day, they are planning to ramp up activity and engagement — in addition to the $5 million the DNC has already budgeted for Virginia, one of the people said.

They know what’s at stake. A loss to Republican Glenn Youngkin in the off-cycle governor’s race could set off a domino effect, with Democrats panicking and thinking it’s 2009 all over again — the year they last lost the state’s gubernatorial race, followed by a wipeout in Congress. Democrats fear the party will lose faith in the idea that Biden’s agenda will help boost their electoral prospects; that they’ll fret about his broader handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and even question the embrace of vaccine mandates as an electoral cudgel after it found favor with a wide swath of Americans.

“There should be concern, it’s a close race. If Terry loses that’s going to scare a lot of Democrats on the Hill. It’s going to make people worry about the midterms and it’s going to make it harder to pass the president’s agenda,” said Josh Schwerin, a Democratic strategist who has worked as a McAuliffe political adviser and former press secretary. “People are going to get skittish if we lose this.”

“It would be the wrong reaction,” Schwerin added, “but it would be the reaction.”

A source familiar with the White House’s thinking said officials always anticipated a close race in Virginia, noting that Biden himself suggested so when he stumped for McAuliffe in late July. Among their concerns is the number of undecided voters in the contest, said another source familiar with conversations between White House aides and national Democratic Party leadership. Virginia has trended Democratic in recent years, with Biden winning the state by 10 points, but if voters remain on the fence as the election approaches, it gives Youngkin the type of opening he would need.

“Of course I believe the White House is concerned,” said Chris Korge, national finance chair at the DNC who is close with McAuliffe. “Knowing Terry the way I do, this guy is tireless, he never stops, he’ll pull it out. But it’s going to require him running a near perfect campaign.”

Fear within the administration is real. Specifically, a third person expressed concerns about complacency among Democratic voters setting in, and pledged that much of their work over the final 35 days will be on ensuring those restive voters turn in their ballots.

“If Democrats, if the McAuliffe campaign, if the coordinated campaign run a strong [get out the vote] effort, which I believe that they will, I think that they’re going to be in a great spot,” the person told POLITICO. “But people have to show up. They’ve got to show up and vote.”

McAuliffe, whose second and final debate with Youngkin is Tuesday evening, isn’t shying away from the warnings. Recently, he’s sat for interviews on cable TV to lay out the stakes for Democrats in Virginia and beyond.

Operatives in the state compared the early alarm bells to those rung in California this summer after polls showed Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom only narrowly turning back a recall attempt. Newsom successfully branded the effort a GOP-led recall, tagged his opponents as mini-Donald Trumps, and mobilized Democrats before turning out his voters en masse.

But Virginia is a far more closely divided state and unlike in California, not every voter is being sent a mail-in ballot. Korge and others said they’d breathe easier if the Biden administration and lawmakers showed progress — and ultimately passed — the president’s major legislative proposals: infrastructure and a party-line social spending bill.

“Honestly, if they pass infrastructure and reconciliation, my comfort level of Terry winning goes up by a 1,000,” he said.

Schwerin stressed that even though Democrats will likely be spooked into thinking there are wider implications for Biden’s agenda if McAuliffe loses, it likely would be due to other dynamics, including a different electorate in off-year elections and the absence of a motivating anti-Trump sentiment. “I think McAuliffe is running a good campaign and he’s a good candidate,” he said. “It’s the climate.”

While McAuliffe has worked to yoke Youngkin to Trump — contending that the state’s progress on Covid and the economy will go to shambles under Republican leadership — Youngkin has largely resisted invitations to nationalize the race. Still, Republicans see more opportunities to leverage Biden’s shortcomings to drive turnout.

The messy and ultimately fatal U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, rising prices for goods and groceries driven by inflation and another wave of migrants to the southern U.S. border have the GOP bullish about Youngkin’s prospects.

“Republicans are angry and motivated, and independents are acting more like Republicans today than any time in the last year,” said Phil Cox, the former campaign manager for Republican Bob McDonnell’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign, citing a recent public survey showing that independent voters supported Youngkin over McAuliffe by six points. “I think we’ve got the best chance in more than a decade.”

Chris Saxman, a conservative who is executive director of the nonpartisan business group Virginia FREE, went as far as suggesting that Youngkin “could be a unicorn candidate” for the GOP.

“He’s new, he’s completely outside politics. He’s never run for office before,” Saxman said. “So, he’s coming in this [with his] eyes wide open on what’s going on in Virginia and figuring out what needs to change.”

Several public surveys of voters have been within the margin of error, though a Monmouth University Poll published Monday showed McAuliffe holding onto a five-point advantage over Younkin with registered voters, with 48 percent of those surveyed supporting the Democrat and 43 percent backing the Republican newcomer.

Those numbers were virtually unchanged from where the two candidates stood in Monmouth’s August poll. While Biden’s approval numbers have lagged in the state, largely due to the resurgence of Covid-19, those queried put their faith behind McAuliffe, who led Youngkin 41 percent to 28 percent on the question of who they would trust more on handling the pandemic.

The people close to the White House said they’ve come to view Youngkin as boxed in with Trump on the virus, election security and the Jan. 6 insurrection, which they contend could resonate more widely with voters given Northern Virginia’s proximity to the Capitol.

At times, they note, Youngkin has equivocated or shifted his answers so as not to offend the base of the party. In a recent interview with Axios, he would not say whether he would have voted to certify the 2020 election on Jan. 6 were he a member of Congress. Youngkin later said he would have voted to do so.

Democrats also are encouraged by what they see as his inability to settle on a closing message.

“For a Republican to win, their base has to be at maximum intensity and our base has to be at minimal intensity,” said former Rep. Tom Perriello, who ran and lost in a Democratic primary for Virginia governor.

Perriello said he’s cautiously optimistic in Democrats’ turnout effort and the partnership of the campaign and allies. He also notes that this is the first gubernatorial election with extensive in-person early voting and mail voting. Recent polling shows that there is still a divide between parties on how people plan to vote: Most Republicans still plan to vote on Election Day and a majority of Democrats said they plan to vote before Nov 2.

“But that doesn’t mean I am not terrified,” Perriello allowed. “Cause the stakes for the state and the country are huge.”

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