(The Hill) – Recent Republican gains in Virginia are fueling excitement among the GOP and concern among some Democrats that the commonwealth could be shifting rightward.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) surprised many Democrats when he won in last year’s off-year gubernatorial election in a state that had been seen by many in the party as trending blue.
Youngkin’s win, along with those of other down-ballot Republicans, has raised questions about whether Republicans can make further inroads there in the midterms and possibly in 2024, especially as President Biden faces consistently low approval numbers.
“Virginia politics is highly nationalized right now,” said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth.
Like numerous other congressional districts across the country, Biden’s unpopularity could put vulnerable down-ballot Democrats at risk. A New York Times-Sienna College survey released on Monday found that 64 percent of Democratic respondents said they would prefer a candidate other than Biden to run as the party’s nominee in 2024. On top of that, 76 percent of Americans said they believe that the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction.
“His numbers are so bad and the public opinion about the direction of the country is so low, that it’s putting into jeopardy two or potentially three Democratic incumbent legislators here in the House,” Holsworth said.
The competitive Virginia districts in question this cycle are the 2nd and 7th districts, which are represented by Reps. Elaine Luria (D) and Abigail Spanberger (D), respectively. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates both races as toss-ups. Youngkin won both congressional districts in last year’s election, which took place prior to redistricting.
Republicans have also their sights set on incumbent Rep. Jennifer Wexton’s (D-Va.) House seat in the state’s 10th congressional district. The National Republican Congressional Committee added Wexton’s district to its target list one day after Youngkin’s victory in 2021. Youngkin did not win the district in last year’s election.
“Luria’s in a hard district for Democrats anyway. Spanberger is in a very competitive one, and Wexton is in one that the wave could wash over,” Holsworth said.
And with a national red wave seeming more and more likely, Virginia Republicans are hoping the wave they saw in 2021 under Youngkin extends into 2022.
“If I’m Elaine Luria or Abigail Spanberger, I am very scared running for reelection in Glenn Youngkin’s Virginia,” said Youngkin’s political adviser Kristin Davison, who worked on his campaign last year.
Youngkin’s allies argue that he played a major role in writing the 2022 playbook for Republican statewide candidates by putting the focus on kitchen table issues.
“That movement focused on the cost of living, community safety, [and] education has now sparked its way across the country,” Davison said. “You look in some of these other states that have governors’ races and congressional races and they’re all really mimicking the message that the governor and Republicans in Virginia had last year, and I think that it’s also working that way in the congressional races in Virginia.”
But Democrats argue that candidates like Spanberger, Luria and Wexton are running on their own records and have survived tough reelection bids in the past.
“Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger, and Jennifer Wexton win tough elections cycle after cycle because they work hard and voters know where their focus is: Good jobs. Fixing infrastructure. A booming economy,” said Monica Robinson, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Meanwhile, Republicans have offered voters nothing but embarrassing headlines and toxic extremism as they root against America’s economy and push abortion bans that would throw doctors and women in jail.”
In addition to addressing jobs and the economy, Virginia Democrats are mirroring the national Democratic strategy of seeking to make abortion top of mind in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Youngkin has said he would pursue a ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy in Virginia except for cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in jeopardy.
“I think that issue is going to be everywhere in Virginia,” said Gianni Snidle, a spokesperson at the Virginia Democratic Party.
A Roanoke College poll released last month found that 88 percent of Virginians said they felt that the procedure should be legal under some or all circumstances, with 53 percent saying it should be legal under some circumstances and 35 percent saying it should be legal under any circumstance. Only 11 percent said they believed abortion should be completely illegal.
The issue has already played in the state’s congressional races, particularly in Spanberger’s district. Last month Axios reported that Spanberger’s GOP opponent Yesli Vega downplayed the possibility of becoming pregnant as a result of rape when she was questioned about her stance on abortion during a campaign stop. Vega told the outlet in response, “I’m a mother of two, I’m fully aware of how women get pregnant.”
However, Democrats have already used the comments to go on the offensive. Last week, the DCCC launched a billboard in Stafford County with Vega’s face and a Newsweek headline about her comments.
“It’s a topic that Glenn Youngkin doesn’t want to talk about and Republican congressional [candidates] kind of shy away from. Some of them aren’t as savvy as others,” Snidle said, referring to Vega.
But when asked about Democrats going on the offensive on abortion, one Republican operative said the strategy was “laughable.” The operative added that polls consistently show that the economy is more of a priority for voters.
Camille Gallo, a spokesperson for the NRCC, echoed that.
“Virginians will vote Republican this November because they know Democrats’ failed agenda is responsible for rising prices, soaring crime and diminishing parental rights,” Gallo said.
Youngkin’s own political future could be impacted by the GOP’s performance in November. The governor, who was virtually unknown by most Virginians prior to the state’s Republican convention last year, is seemingly introducing himself to the country outside of Virginia. Last month Time Magazine published a profile on Youngkin, and on Sunday the governor appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
With the newfound media attention, Youngkin’s name has been floated as a potential 2024 presidential contender. While Youngkin has maintained that he’s focused on his job as governor, he raised eyebrows over the weekend when he headlined the Nebraska Republican Party convention.
“People are very excited about what the governor has been able to do,” Davison said, referring to Youngkin’s tax cuts and his education agenda.
Democrats, on the other hand, are not as convinced.
“We call him the halftime governor now because it’s five, six months on the job and his first time in politics and he’s already gearing up for 2024,” Snidle said.
“I hope he’s focused [on governing] rather than going to Nebraska and then eventually Iowa and New Hampshire,” he added.