Obama's visit to Virginia a page out of Democrats' playbook in the California recall

·Chief National Correspondent
·8 min read

Terry McAuliffe is trying to follow the Gavin Newsom playbook for rousing lethargic Democratic voters as the neck-and-neck Virginia governor’s race reaches its final stretch.

Just as Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, fought off a recall effort, McAuliffe is seeking to beat back a motivated Republican grassroots that is hungry for a victory in a state that was won decisively by Joe Biden in 2020.

In California, Newsom struggled to gain traction with Democratic voters until he started talking about the way a loss would energize elements of the Republican Party who want to continue spreading lies about the 2020 election and want to limit access to abortion. 

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe answers questions from reporters after speaking at an early vote  campaign event October 20, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at a campaign event in Charlottesville, Va., on Wednesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

And as in California, Democrats in Virginia are struggling to overcome the fact that their base voters have not been as interested as the Republican grassroots.

“Democrats are sated with victory. They’ve had so many victories in a row that they falsely assumed they would win this time automatically. But there’s no such thing in politics,” Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told Yahoo News.

Republicans haven’t won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009. “Republicans are desperate,” Sabato said.

And this is why there is what Sabato called an “enthusiasm gap” in the state. Republican voters are more energized to vote, and then there’s the fact that Virginia is not anywhere near as Democratic as California. Biden won Virginia by 10 points in 2020. He won California by nearly 30.

So this is why former President Barack Obama is coming to Virginia to campaign for McAuliffe on Saturday, a few days after Vice President Kamala Harris, a week after Democratic icon Stacey Abrams and one day before Abrams and musician Dave Matthews headline an event in Charlottesville.

Obama’s visit could help McAuliffe in a variety of ways, all of them similar to patterns in other states. It will attract attention from Democratic voters and galvanize some number of them to the polls. It will likely appeal to Black voters in Virginia, who are a crucial voting bloc for Democrats in the commonwealth. Some voters of color were disappointed that McAuliffe was the Democratic nominee, beating out three Black candidates.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park on September 28, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former President Barack Obama at a ceremonial groundbreaking of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago on Sept. 28. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Obama’s visit also increases the chances that former President Donald Trump will once again inject himself into the race in a way that helps McAuliffe, as he did last week when he called in to a rally featuring his former adviser Steve Bannon that GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin avoided. Youngkin has not asked Trump to campaign with him and has ignored Trump’s demands that he embrace the former president. But on Tuesday, Youngkin did have praise for Trump and in fact compared himself to him.

“Donald Trump was a business guy who stepped out of his business career to, in fact, go serve America. And I have stepped out of my business career because I think the skill set that I’ve got has got a moment right now,” Youngkin told a reporter for local TV station ABC7 who previously worked in the Trump administration as a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

If Trump does continue to push himself into the Virginia race, whether baited by Obama’s presence there or for some other reason, it will turn off Republican moderates who did not vote for him, or who voted for Biden.

Obama previewed his message to voters in a 30-second TV ad released by the McAuliffe campaign on Wednesday. It was as much about the national stakes as anything else.

“Virginia, you have a lot of responsibility this year. Not only are you choosing your next governor, but you’re also making a statement about what direction we’re headed in as a country,” Obama said in the ad. 

People hold a Trump 2024 flag before U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) who arrives to address supporters at a Matt Gaetz Florida Man Freedom Tour event at the Hilton Melbourne Beach. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
People hold a Trump 2024 flag at a July event for Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., in Melbourne Beach, Fla. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In other words, a Republican win increases the chances that the GOP retakes control of Congress a year from now and that Trump runs for president again in 2024. And there are already plenty of concerns about how Republicans who supported Trump’s lies in 2020 about the election results, who have now whitewashed the reality of the Jan. 6 insurrection and who continue to condone and amplify Trump’s falsehoods might seek to tamper with the election results in 2024.

A number of Republican-controlled state legislatures have changed their laws this year to make it easier to change election results after voters have cast their ballots.

Obama is appearing in Richmond for a reason. It is home to one of the biggest concentrations of Black voters in the state, along with portions of Norfolk and areas of northern Virginia. But Democrats in Richmond are less engaged in politics than those in northern Virginia, where proximity to Washington, D.C., makes politics more salient.

As for McAuliffe’s messaging down the home stretch, it is similar to Newsom’s in the closing days before the recall vote: emphasize abortion and Trump. It is designed to tap into issues that matter at the national level to distinct Democratic constituencies. Talking about threats to abortion access — as in Texas, where the state Legislature has restricted it after six weeks of pregnancy — attracts interest from suburban Democratic voters. And McAuliffe is tying Youngkin to Trump at every chance he can get, as he has all through the campaign.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on October 09, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. This is Trump's first rally in Iowa since the 2020 election. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Oct. 9. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

McAuliffe’s attempts to link Youngkin to Trump have been stymied by the Republican candidate’s clean-cut style. But Trump's call-in to the Bannon event last week was a gift to McAuliffe, in part because it featured a bizarre moment when attendees said the Pledge of Allegiance to an American flag that an event organizer said had been carried in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the day of the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Youngkin did say this show of devotion to an artifact associated with Jan. 6 was “weird and wrong.”

Although he had spent much of the campaign tiptoeing around questions of the 2020 election’s legitimacy, Youngkin said in September he would have voted to certify Biden’s victory had he been a member of Congress. But he has also made “election integrity” a big point of emphasis, using the same language that many who believe Trump’s falsehoods about a stolen election employ. And Youngkin has called for an audit of voting machines, something that already happens.

McAuliffe has been dealing with a cleanup of his own, after he said in a recent debate that he vetoed a bill during his first term in office that would have given parents the ability to “veto books” in their children’s schools. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools, and actually take books out, and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The former governor, who was in office from 2014 to 2018 and was limited to one term at a time by the state constitution, released an ad this week saying that Youngkin has been taking his comment about parents out of context. Youngkin has been doing that, telling voters that McAuliffe doesn’t want parents to have any input into how their children are educated at all. But the fact that McAuliffe’s campaign needed to release an ad indicates it sees the attacks as hurting him.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) speaks during an Early Vote rally October 19, 2021 in Stafford, Virginia. Youngkin is running against former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA). (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Stafford, Va., on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Youngkin’s momentum of late is due in part to the fact that he tapped into a nationalized issue when he started talking about how schools teach the history of race and racism in America, and structural inequality, labeling it with the term "critical race theory."

CRT had become a hot-button issue on right-wing media over the summer, and Youngkin has harnessed the fears of mostly white parents about how race is discussed in school, connecting it to larger concerns about the education system, such as school policies concerning transgender students.

He spent several minutes Tuesday evening in a prepared speech to supporters talking about a student, identified by authorities as a 15-year-old male, who has been accused of sexually assaulting two female students in different high schools, and was arrested in July for two counts of assault.

Much of the outrage over the incidents is related to the fact that the accused perpetrator has been described by the father of one of the alleged victims as a “gender fluid” teen who wore a skirt and raped his daughter in a girls' bathroom in May. Those details have not been confirmed by law enforcement, the Washington Post reported last week.

The father, Scott Smith, has gone on Fox News to talk about the incident, and is accusing the Loudoun County School Board of trying to cover up the crime. The Democratic chair of the school board has said they learned of it “at the same time and in the same manner” as the rest of the community.

Youngkin did not bring up the connection to transgender issues on Tuesday, instead talking about the failure of local schools to keep students safe, and also claiming that “the school administrators covered it up.”

In a vague line, he said: “For months, for months, we’ve seen chaos seep into our schools, escalating into violence.”

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