WASHINGTON (The Hill): The White House desperately needs Democrat Terry McAuliffe to win next month’s gubernatorial race in Virginia after a brutal period for President Biden.
If McAuliffe falls to Republican Glenn Youngkin, the White House knows it will be seen as a bellwether for next year’s midterm elections, and a sign of Biden’s fading popularity and influence.
Biden defeated former President Trump by 10 points in last year’s presidential contest, and the White House is set to step up its involvement in the race in its final weeks.
The president campaigned for McAuliffe in July, and Vice President Harris held a fundraiser for the Democrat last month.
One source familiar with the White House’s thinking said Biden and his team are taking the election very seriously and are “heavily invested” in the outcome of a race where polls show a competitive match-up.
Advisers to the president are in regular contact with McAuliffe’s camp.
“We always knew it was going to be a close race so this isn’t surprising to us,” the source said.
It’s also a personal fight for Biden, Democrats say.
“Virginia is the first high-stakes opportunity to test out the president’s agenda on voters so the stakes are certainly elevated,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “It goes without saying the outcome of Virginia is certainly very important to the president.”
Some are comparing the battle to Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2009, the last time a first-term Democrat held the Oval Office. Democrats lost the race, and former President Obama’s party was wiped out in the following year’s midterms.
Republican Bob McDonnell’s victory over Democrat Creigh Deeds was the last time the GOP won the governor’s mansion.
McAuliffe holds a small lead over Youngkin in recent polls less than a month before Election Day. A compilation of surveys from the political site FiveThirtyEight shows him with a 3-point lead — 47 percent to 44 percent.
Biden has had a tough few months and has seen his own approval rating sag. He’s in need of legislative victories — and political victories for his party.
“The White House desperately needs a win here because lately they’ve had nada, nothing,” said one Democratic donor. “They need this win for a lot of reasons, but mostly for some damn momentum.”
Senior Biden officials are already hedging their bets.
Asked last week if the race is a referendum on Biden’s agenda, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied: “I don’t think we see it that way.”
“I would note that he’s also been campaigning on a number of components of the president’s Build Back Better agenda, and the president’s initiatives he’s working through Congress,” Psaki said. “So, obviously, if people support that agenda, maybe they’ll support what Terry McAuliffe is running for, but races are always a little bit more complicated than that.”
The latest RealClearPolitics polling aggregate shows the president with a 45 percent favorable rating, a number that forecasters and allies agree should be higher. The most recent Reuters-Ipsos poll shows 50 percent of respondents disapprove of how Biden is conducting his job.
“Perceptions of Biden have gotten worse over the last few months,” said Kyle Kondik, a Virginia-based elections analyst. “McAuliffe might feel like he’s better positioned if Biden was more popular.”
McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, “will want Biden’s approval rating to stabilize or get better between now and Election Day,” Kondik said.
The two Democrats have, in some ways, tied their political fortunes to each other.
Virginia was integral to Biden’s winning formula during the Democratic primary in 2020. Just after the president won South Carolina, he gathered with allies and voters near Virginia Beach to celebrate what looked like a presumptive sweep of many Super Tuesday states.
McAuliffe, who offered Biden his endorsement earlier than some other backers, was his top opener, zestfully screaming that he was proud to help his state elevate the former vice president to the White House.
The two Democrats are so close, in fact, that McAuliffe was rumored to have declined his own potential presidential primary bid last year to accommodate Biden.
Some Democrats close to McAuliffe now see their bond as an asset in the nail-biter phase.
“I don’t see an issue where Terry McAuliffe is going to be running away from Joe Biden or vice versa,” said Jared Leopold, an operative in Virginia who has worked closely with McAuliffe and other Democratic governors.
McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin to Trump by blasting out campaign fundraising emails highlighting their similarities.
If Biden were to run in 2024 — a scenario the White House publicly supports — he could very well spar against Trump again. While Biden won Virginia by double digits, Democrats believe the governor’s race gives a glimpse into the mood of a purple state electorate that could be pivotal in the general election.
“My opponent, Glenn Youngkin, has been endorsed by Donald Trump four times. Four times!” McAuliffe said. “And he’s screaming from the rooftops that he’s proud of it. He even said Donald Trump ‘represents so much of why [he’s] running.’ “
But Democrats have to get through the midterms first. And many in the party agree the election will provide insights about states with a similar diversity of urban, suburban and rural voters.
“Virginia’s the best approximation we have of the midterms,” said Leopold. “New Jersey’s not competitive statewide, California was a weird recall situation, and Virginia you have both top of the ballot statewide competitive in all three races and the house of delegates up for grabs, too.”
“You’re going to learn more about enthusiasm on both sides than any other race this year,” he said.
McAuliffe, of course, is not just running against who Democrats see as a version of Trump. He’s campaigning closely on Biden’s early record, and the gridlock on Capitol Hill isn’t doing him any favors, his allies say.
Some have even privately contended that no one needs Biden’s infrastructure and social spending legislation to pass in Congress more than McAuliffe. This week, the Democrat sniped at lawmakers over the hold-up and urged them to “do your job.”
“It’s frustrating. … Quit your little chitty chat, do your job and quit the posturing, quit going out and talking to the press all day,” he told CNN in an interview. “Do like I did as governor. I brought Republicans and Democrats in a room. We figured it out. … Let’s get it done.”
Many strategists believe that getting something passed will be important in the overall outcome. If that will actually happen, however, is an ongoing question.
“McAuliffe might be better off if this matter is taken care of between now and the election,” Kondik said. “At least that might give Democrats some sense of finality on it.”