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Why Virginia is the biggest test yet for whether Trump still motivates Democrats

Terry McAuliffe may be running against Glenn Youngkin, but his ultimate rhetorical opponent in the closing days of Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial race is a Republican who lost a year ago.

“We don’t need a Donald Trump in khakis,” McAuliffe said of Youngkin while launching his campaign’s final bus tour on Friday in Arlington.

And voters at McAuliffe’s rally on Thursday evening with Vice President Kamala Harris clearly got the message.

“He is a bad photocopy of Trump,” Nelson Zaragoza, a mechanic from Stafford, Virginia, said of Youngkin, comparing him to former President Donald Trump. “He supports everything that Trump has been trying to push, he is doing the same thing.”

The level Democratic campaigns in Virginia have focused on Trump over the last few months has turned the off-year elections into the biggest test yet for whether the former President, who motivated historic Democratic turnout for the years he was either on the ballot or in power, still motivates the party’s base to vote in extraordinary numbers. This lesson, determined by how the tight Virginia’s races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general end up on November 2, will reverberate within the Democratic Party for years, as both official party committees and outside organizations try to understand how to motivate voters after four years of Trump in the White House.

McAuliffe, a candidate who rarely does subtlety, has not minced words about tying Youngkin to Trump, who remains unpopular in Virginia a year after losing the commonwealth by 10 points. His ads have pilloried Youngkin as a Trump acolyte, the former Democratic governor has repeatedly called him a Trump “wannabe,” and, in the closing weeks of the campaign, McAuliffe is warning that Youngkin and Trump are “running together” and the former President “wants to use this election to get him off the mat to get him ready for 2024.”

This nationalization has played out most notably in Northern Virginia. In cities like Arlington, Alexandria and Falls Church, lawn signs that say “Youngkin=Trump” dot umpteenth patches of grass, as McAuliffe hopes to engage the vote-rich and growing area of the commonwealth that dramatically turned against Trump in 2016 and 2020.

“Despite what some say,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, “Trump and his agenda are on the ballot, too.”

The potency of this messaging is particularly important this year, with Democrats worried that their voter base — which may be exhausted by an endless stream of what they’ve been told are critical elections — is now less interested in turning out for the November election. Polls have backed up these fears, with Republican enthusiasm for the race far outpacing Democratic enthusiasm.

But voters like Zaragoza and others also expressed concerns on Thursday night that some of their friends were not as engaged in this race.

Adina Wells, a 58-year-old woman who attended McAuliffe’s rally with Harris, said many of her friends are “not as engaged” in the gubernatorial race as they were in the presidential election a year earlier because “some of them fail to realize that if you have somebody who supports (Trump in office), that could help him.”

“I don’t want him to get back in,” Wells said of Trump. “That is a motivating factor.”

To counter these worries, McAuliffe and his top surrogates have been looking to motivate Democrats with base-boosting issues like abortion and what they see as a responsible response to Covid-19 while warning that a win for Youngkin would be a win for Trump — who has not campaigned here for the Republican nominee.

“Democrats still get fired up about Trump,” said David Turner, a top operative at the Democratic Governors Association, adding that the messaging is particularly important “when turnout is uncertain, and we need to motivate people to go out and vote.”

Renae Schumann, a voter who stopped by the early voting office in Chesterfield County last week to cast her ballot for McAuliffe, is one of those voters.

“Absolutely he is on the ballot, too,” Schumann said of Trump. “If you are not actively against him, I feel like you’re for him. In no way has Youngkin showed or stated that he’s against him, so in my mind it’s clear.”


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