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Tight race for Virginia governor enters final week with national implications on the line

By Dan Merica, CNN

The neck-and-neck race for Virginia governor has entered its final week, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin nationalizing their campaigns in markedly different ways.

For McAuliffe, a steady stream of high-profile Democratic surrogates has turned the race into a referendum about the past eight years of Democratic leadership in the commonwealth as well as the first year of President Joe Biden’s term. Biden will make his second trip across the Potomac River to rally support for McAuliffe on Tuesday evening in Arlington, following a July visit there to boost McAuliffe after the former governor clinched the Democratic nomination.

McAuliffe is closing the campaign much like he opened it: by looking to tie Youngkin to former President Donald Trump.

“There could not be a more stark difference” in the race, McAuliffe said Sunday in Charlottesville. “I am running against someone who has been endorsed by Donald Trump, not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times — six times endorsed by Donald Trump.”

For Youngkin, the push to nationalize the race has not come in the form of top Republican surrogates — the candidate has largely campaigned on his own and has been careful about how he has related himself to Trump. Instead, he has made the case in his stump speech, repeatedly telling Virginians that the race is about more than just their commonwealth.

“Our nation’s future rests in Virginia’s present,” the businessman and political newcomer told an audience in Henrico on Saturday. “All eyes are on Virginia.”

He added: “Friends, America needs us right now.”

The nationalization of the race has turned up the pressure of both campaigns, with Democrats and Republicans in Washington closely watching the contest as a potential road map for how each party might run in next year’s midterms.

The stakes

If McAuliffe wins, Democrats will take the victory as validation that a state that has trended blue over the last decade still stands behind Biden’s agenda and against Republicans, even if Trump is not on the ballot. History is not on Democrats’ side: Since the 1970s, the winner of Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election has nearly always come from the party in opposition to the White House. The only exception was in 2013, when McAuliffe won his first gubernatorial term a year after then-President Barack Obama won reelection.

But even if McAuliffe wins a tight race, the result could spell warning signs for Democrats in Washington, given Biden’s 10-point victory there just last year and the fact that the party in power often loses seats in the subsequent midterms.

Democrats had hoped McAuliffe would be able to run on a successfully passed infrastructure package from the Biden administration, but continual delays on Capitol Hill and Democratic infighting have made the prospect of a deal before November 2 unlikely, something that McAuliffe has used to lambast Congress.

“I say: Do your job,” he said earlier in the month. “You got elected to Congress. We in the states are desperate for this infrastructure money. … We need help out here in the states, and people elected you to do your job.”

And while he has publicly argued the bill is more important for the people of Virginia than for his political fortunes, his aides and advisers have privately worried that dysfunction in Washington could spill into their race, especially in the vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs.

For Youngkin, a win would reverberate far beyond Virginia — where a Republican has not won statewide in 12 years — and deliver the GOP a jolt of momentum heading into 2022. And while each campaign is different and Youngkin, who came into the race as largely a blank slate with unlimited money, is a unique figure, a possible win would validate his strategy of lauding Trump at times while also keeping him at arm’s length.

“Regardless of whether or not he wins … it looks like Youngkin is showing Republicans that they don’t need to be wedded to Trump,” said Doug Heye, a Republican consultant who previously served as the top spokesman at the Republican National Committee. “Sure, they don’t want to cross him and alienate his base. But, especially with Biden’s low numbers and McAuliffe’s vulnerabilities on things like education, Republicans can play on Democrats’ field. That’s the first step in putting Trump in the rearview mirror.”

While there are some doubts among Republicans that the strategy could work in federal races, Heye says that because “all politics are national now,” issues that were once hyper-local “will be talked about up and down the ballot.”

The 2021 races are also the first time that voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots early without an excuse for having to do so after the Democratic-led state changed election laws. According to the Virginia Department of Elections, more than 734,000 Virginians have cast ballots already.

Conversations with McAuliffe and Youngkin supporters have shown a similarity in how each is approaching the race: Both are worried that wins by their opponents would turn Virginia into a vastly different kind of place. Democrats have told CNN repeatedly that a Youngkin win would turn Virginia into a Republican-dominated state like Georgia, Texas or Florida, while Republicans have openly worried that a McAuliffe win would turn the commonwealth into California.

If McAuliffe wins, “we are going to head down the path we are already going down with Biden,” said Wanda Schweiger, a 61-year-old Youngkin supporter. “And it is a sinking ship.”

Stacey Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate in Georgia and a voting rights activist, made that case directly to voters over the weekend.

“If you want to figure out what could happen to you if you don’t get out and vote, pick up a newspaper that talks about Georgia. If you want to know what happens in nine days, if we don’t get out and vote, looking at what’s happening in Texas,” she said. “If you want to know what happens to Virginia, if we don’t vote, if you don’t turn out on November the 2nd, then remember what you felt like in November of 2016.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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