President Joe Biden framed the Virginia governor’s race as a repudiation of his predecessor, tying the Republican candidate to former President Donald Trump as he campaigned for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in what's become a tight and increasingly bitter campaign.
No Republican has won statewide office in Virginia since 2009, and Biden carried it by a comfortable 10 percentage points in 2020. Yet polls have shown McAuliffe tied with Republican former business executive Glenn Youngkin with the election a week away — and the president's own popularity is on the decline.
In the final days of the race, both candidates are focused on turning out their base supporters, with Republicans pressing culture war issues — prompting a debate over banning books in high school classrooms — and McAuliffe, who previously served as governor from 2014 to 2018, hammering Youngkin for his ties to Trump.
Biden drove that theme home during a Tuesday night rally in Arlington, just across the Potomac River from Washington mentioning the former president by name more frequently than Youngkin and drawing a direct line from last year's presidential race to next Tuesday's election.
“I ran against Donald Trump and Terry is running against an acolyte of Donald Trump," Biden said.
He charged that Youngkin “not only embraces some of the essential lack of character, he endorses Donald Trump's bad ideas and bad record."
McAuliffe, meanwhile, told the same gathering that Youngkin “is ending his campaign the way he started it: With divisive dog whistles."
“We have a choice: A path that promotes conspiracies, hate, division, or a path focused on lifting up every single Virginian,” McAuliffe said.
A loss by McAuliffe — or perhaps even a narrow victory — would be an ominous sign for Democrats already likely facing stiff political headwinds in next year's midterm elections, when their narrow control of the House and Senate will be on the line. The party that wins the White House historically losses congressional seats in the next election, and Virginia, this cycle's top off-year race, is seen as a key test of whether Democrats can head into 2022 with momentum.
How much help Biden will offer McAuliffe is unclear, though. The president has seen the percentage of Americans approving of his job performance fall after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and amid an economy that remains far from fully healed as the nation continues to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden defended his record Tuesday night, rehashing some of his old arguments with Trump. He said that while Trump presided over a loss of American jobs, the Biden administration has overseen a surge in job creation, and also touted the strength of the stock market on his watch — a nod to one of Trump's favored metrics for success.
And Biden touted aspects of his infrastructure and social services spending proposals, tying his plans to the need to win next week's elections.
“We're on the right track, but we've got more to do," Biden said.
Youngkin's campaign released an ad featuring a mother who years ago sought to have the book “Beloved” banned from classrooms in suburban Washington. The acclaimed 1987 novel by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison is about an escaped slave who kills her infant daughter rather than allowing the girl to be returned to the plantation.
The mother's advocacy led to state legislation McAuliffe vetoed in 2016 and 2017 that would have let parents opt out of having their children study classroom materials with sexually explicit content.
McAuliffe’s campaign and fellow Democrats blasted Youngkin’s ad and accused him of trying to “silence” Black authors.
McAuliffe's campaign highlighted the controversy during his rally by passing out copies of “Beloved” to reporters, and McAuliffe hammered Youngkin for it.
“He wants to bring his personal culture wars into our classrooms," he said. “Folks, we will not allow Glenn Youngkin to bring his hate, his chaos, into our Virginia schools.”
Youngkin has made defending “parental rights” in school classrooms a centerpiece of his gubernatorial run, and his campaign responded by noting that the bills McAuliffe vetoed had passed with Democratic support. It said that by accusing Youngkin of playing racial politics, McAuliffe was effectively leveling the same charge at his own party.
That issue flared up before Biden addressed more than 1,000 people who cheered and shivered against stiff winds on soccer fields in a park in Arlington, long safely blue territory. Other, nearby parts of the fast-growing Washington suburbs have moved Virginia from a onetime swing state to more reliably Democratic — especially as their populations of Black, Hispanic and Asian residents have increased.
A small group of protesters, one hoisting a large “Trump Won” flag, gathered nearby and briefly chanted “Let's Go Brandon,” a euphemism for a vulgarity against Biden that has become popular on conservative social media sites.
Ebonie Gadson, 23, an independent voter who works for a tech company and lives across the street, headed to rally to learn more about a governor's race she said she only recently began closely following.
“Having the president's support, I think, will increase voter turnout and just get everyone excited,” said Gadson, who added that she wanted to learn more about the race “than just what I'd seen on TV.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Youngkin is “ensuring every Virginian has a say in their child’s education.”
“With an unprecedented amount of Republican enthusiasm, Virginians are ready to reject Terry McAuliffe and Joe Biden,” McDaniel said in a statement.
Biden made his second trip to Arlington since McAuliffe launched his gubernatorial bid. He's the latest in a parade of Democratic stars to flood the state, hoping to fire up the party's base.
The president follows former President Barack Obama, Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and first lady Jill Biden.
Vice President Kamala Harris will campaign for McAuliffe on Friday, her second stop in as many weeks. In Dumfries, about 30 miles south of Washington last week, Harris called the race “tight” and warned against Democratic complacency.
Youngkin campaigned in Clarksville and Danville, not far from the Virginia-North Carolina border, on Tuesday, part of a 50-stop bus tour. In contrast to McAuliffe, Youngkin, a former top executive at the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, has largely shied away from outside help from national party members, though he has been endorsed by Trump.
“This is no longer a campaign,” Youngkin said as he visited suburban Richmond recently. "This is a movement.”
Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.