Democrats bring out big guns for 'tight' Virginia gubernatorial race

President Biden to join former President Obama and other Democrats stumping for Terry McAuliffe

Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, and US Vice President Kamala Harris, wave during a campaign event in Dumfries, Virginia, US, on October 21, 2021.  Bloomberg

Terry McAuliffe is locked in a close race with Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 points last autumn.

Shifts in the state’s swelling suburbs to the north near Washington and around Richmond have benefited Democrats in recent years — particularly when former president Donald Trump was in office.

And while no Republican has won statewide in more than a decade, Mr Biden’s rough summer, dominated by the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a stalled domestic agenda, threatens to undermine Mr McAuliffe’s apparent advantages.

Most of his gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic have been invitation only, policy-focused events with small groups of local health officials, educators and faith leaders, among others. Closed-door fund-raising events are a regular part of the schedule as well.

Mr McAuliffe will draw bigger crowds when a collection of high-profile, long-time political allies visit the state on his behalf this week, including former president Barack Obama and Mr Biden.

"I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts," Mr Obama said at a Sunday rally.

"We're not going to go back to the chaos that did so much damage. We're going to move forward with people like Terry leading the way."

He declared that the Virginia election represented a national "turning point" and Mr McAuliffe agreed.

"This election is about the next chapter of Virginia and our country ... It's about leading us out of this pandemic, keeping our economy strong, protecting voter rights, protecting abortion rights and so much more," he said.

Mr Biden is scheduled to campaign for Mr McAuliffe on Tuesday.

Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned for him on Thursday evening.

“This race is tight,” Ms Harris told hundreds of cheering supporters. “And we got to make it clear, Virginia, that we’re paying attention. We got to make it clear that we’re not taking anything for granted.”

Ms Harris is following Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who each visited black churches this month.

“I know you get tired of being called a bellwether state but I’m going to tell you — as someone from one of those newly purplish states — we’ve got to look to you for wisdom,” she said, referring to once reliably Republican Georgia backing Mr Biden and two Democratic senators last cycle.

“Voting is an act of faith,” Ms Abrams said. “I need you to do the job.”

Mr McAuliffe remains a dominant force in Virginia politics. He won every one of Virginia’s cities and localities, earning more votes than all his competitors combined in his party’s nominating contest this spring, which included three candidates of colour.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters at a restaurant on October 22, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia. He was joined by Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, Keisha Lance Bottoms. AFP

His appeal to African Americans, who represent 20 per cent of the state’s population and a critical slice of the Democratic base, is central to his candidacy. His focus on racial equity also plays well among college-educated white people in the growing suburbs.

Almost every day on the trail, he highlights his decision as governor to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons — many of them black. He also frequently reminds voters that in 2015, he ordered the removal of a state-sponsored license plate that featured the Confederate flag.

When asked, he stopped short of saying that Virginia still has a problem with systemic racism.

“You still have to go and deal with issues that go back many years here in Virginia, but we’re in a different place from when I was governor,” Mr McAuliffe said.

Voting rights activist Stacey Abrams waves to the crowd with Mr McAuliffe during a rally in Norfolk, Virginia. AP

Beyond its lengthy history contending racial divides, recent events have brought forward the state's handling of racism. A rally defending Confederate statues in 2017 resulted in the death of an antiracism activist, Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville of Virginia.

The former governor is also eager to promote his plans for moving past the pandemic, for education and for protecting women’s access to abortion, all of which he says are under attack by his Republican opponent.

Acknowledging the stakes, Mr Biden noted Friday to reporters while traveling in Connecticut: “Now, look, I think everybody understandably reads the two gubernatorial off-year elections as being a bellwether of what may happen. Sometimes it’s been right; sometimes it’s been wrong.”

He continued: “I think Terry is going to win. If he doesn’t win, I don’t know how much you read into that, but, you know, I -- well, I think he’ll win.”

Updated: October 25th 2021, 4:59 PM