RICHMOND, Va. – As he explains it, part of why Glenn Youngkin decided to run for Virginia governor was a feeling that the state's beaten and battered Republican Party “could do so much better.”
That's a polite way to put it. Since Virginia went blue for Barack Obama in 2008, Republicans have been on a downhill slide, the pace of which quickened during President Donald Trump's administration. The GOP, which hasn't won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009, saw its legislative majority melt away.
That long losing streak, and the unusually high hopes surrounding Youngkin, has made his race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe a high-stakes moment for the GOP. Some view it as the last chance to regain a foothold in an increasingly diverse and liberal state, before the party loses a generation of voters and a Southern battleground slips firmly into Democrats' column.
“This is the year a Republican’s got to win that race,” said Patrick McSweeney, a former chair of the Republican Party of Virginia.
The troubles that have sunk Republicans here are familiar well beyond Virginia. In recent years, either the party's hard-line base has backed candidates that don't appeal to the moderate suburbs or mainstream candidates have bowed to far-right positions. The party has also struggled to gain support from nonwhite voters.
But this year, the party nominated a racially and geographically diverse statewide ticket, and Republicans from all factions of the party appear to have rallied around Youngkin, a political newcomer who's proved to be a strong campaigner with appeal well beyond the far-right. Youngkin also appears to be benefiting as voters sour on a Democrat-controlled Washington. Polls suggest the contest, which will likely be the state's most expensive governor's race ever, is a dead heat.
Former Republican state Sen. John Watkins, who spent 34 years in the General Assembly, said he sees Youngkin as a marked improvement over the “far right” candidates the party nominated in some recent years.
Watkins said he expects Youngkin will be far more competitive than one of those candidates, conservative provocateur Corey Stewart, who lost a 2018 U.S. Senate race against Tim Kaine by 16 percentage points. Stewart, a onetime state chair of Trump’s presidential campaign, ran as an immigration hard-liner and outspoken advocate of Confederate imagery, lobbed sharp personal attacks against Kaine and ended up shunned by some fellow GOP congressional candidates.
Youngkin won his party's nomination in May after campaigning as a conservative Christian outsider and making “election integrity” a top issue, allowing him to appeal to Trump voters who believed the former president's lie that the 2020 election was stolen. He then mostly pivoted to other issues, promising to cut taxes and support law enforcement, and seizing on conservatives’ frustrations with schools over pandemic policies and race and diversity education.
His advertising has sought to portray him as an affable, suburban dad, and he's kept his distance from Trump, who has endorsed him.
That hasn't kept McAuliffe, who was in office from 2014 to 2018, from trying to make the case that Youngkin is an extremist who would roll back Democrats' list of legislative accomplishments.
“From the day he got into this race, Glenn Youngkin has run a campaign of hatred, division and fear,” McAuliffe said at a rally Friday.
In just two years in full control of state government, Democrats have instituted transformative public policy changes: reforming the criminal justice system, loosening abortion restrictions, expanding voting access, legalizing marijuana and ending the death penalty.
Also on the ballot this year are races for attorney general and lieutenant governor, plus all 100 seats in the House of Delegates, where Democrats have a 55-45 majority. The Democrat-controlled Senate is not up this year.
For Democrats, “everything is on the line," said Democratic Party chair Susan Swecker.
Swecker argued that Democrats are better aligned with Virginia's electorate, which has grown more suburban, more educated and more racially diverse. Republicans have moved too far to the right, she said, opposing abortion rights, voting rights and making Virginia “welcoming and open to all."
“You’re playing in the corners, and that is not where the people of Virginia are,” she said.
Even if Youngkin turns out to be a pitch-perfect candidate, Republicans face demographic challenges. The party's strongholds in the rural southern and western parts of the state are losing population. And while the state is growing more racially diverse, the Virginia GOP remains overwhelmingly white. In 2020, roughly 87% of all Trump voters in Virginia were white, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the electorate.
Youngkin discussed the party's recent losing record in an interview with The Associated Press when asked what led him to politics after retiring from a lucrative career in private equity.
He said he didn't like the direction Virginia was heading under one-party control and saw this year as an opportunity for the GOP to offer “a real challenge.”
“You know the stats. I mean, we haven’t won a statewide election since Bob McDonnell,” he said, a reference to the 2009 governor's race.
One illustration of how Democrats and Republicans have fared in Virginia in recent years is the parties' headquarters.
The Democrats' office is located in a stylish downtown Richmond office building, close to the state Capitol.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have set up shop in a modest building about a mile away on the fringe of downtown, sandwiched between a deli and a hair salon.
“The last four years have been particularly demoralizing,” said Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the party.
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel disputed any notion that the state party isn't in fighting shape. She said the national party has been investing in the state, with 100 paid staff on the ground and 13 offices opened for the election. But she acknowledged that a victory Tuesday would give state Republicans “a big boost.”
Paul Goldman, a former state Democratic Party chair, said the election will offer insight on how blue Virginia's electorate really is. If McAuliffe is able to overcome a “fresh” candidate with “unlimited” money, then “either Republicans are going to have to change their game or they will only win when the public is really sour on the Democrats," he said.
McSweeney agreed that his party would have a tough road ahead if Youngkin doesn't pull off a victory on Tuesday.
“If Glenn can’t win, then it’s going to be very difficult to win in the future for a number of reasons. But principally because people are not going to be as interested in throwing their resources and energy and time into it," he said.
Associated Press writer Steve Peoples contributed to this report.